The last time the NASCAR season was in Daytona, everybody was talking about Danica.
Not this time.
The Sprint Cup Series is back at the beach town on the east side of Florida, ready to close the first half of the season with its best driver (Jimmie Johnson) at the top; its defending champion (Brad Keselowski) winless; two former champions (Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart) in danger of not even making the Chase for the Sprint Cup; and a top contender (Denny Hamlin) limping along after that crash in California left him with a broken back.
Johnson kicked off the season at the Daytona 500 with his tenth-of-a-second victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing off a week where everybody was talking about Danica Patrick’s start from the pole, the first by a woman in Sprint Cup, and her eighth-place finish, the best by a woman at Daytona.
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Since then, Patrick has had a quiet season. She’s 27th in points near the halfway mark of her rookie year, aiming to learn what she can.
It is the other names in the sport — Harvick, Edwards, Kenseth — who are in the conversation for a chance at the championship. And as they get their chance to strengthen their run for a spot in the Chase over the next nine races, starting Saturday night in Daytona Beach, we take a look at the season so far and what’s ahead in the second half:
First half storylines
The winless champ: Brad Keselowski outlasted the seemingly unbeatable Jimmie Johnson a year ago and won his first championship. Right now, he can’t even win his first race of the season. He sits 13th in points, and until he gets a win, is out of luck in the wild-card picture.
Kenseth’s big move: Matt Kenseth’s first year out of a Roush Fenway Ford and in a Joe Gibbs Toyota is reaping big dividends — four victories, his most since 2006. It’s hard to remember a more productive change of scenery for any driver.
Hamlin-Logano feud: It got started on Twitter at Daytona. The former teammates got to digging on each other online, and got carried away. At California, they got into it with their cars, and Denny Hamlin ended up crashing and suffering a broken back that kept him out of four races and just about has him out of contention.
Disappointing rookies: There are only three — Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Timmy Hill — but the two with the biggest following, Patrick and Stenhouse, have managed one top-10 between them.
The Gen-6 car: The drivers like it. They believe it’s “racier.” But track position, pit strategy, restarts and clean air still mean more than anything. The new looks and safety features of the sixth-generation car haven’t changed that.
The drive for six: Jimmie Johnson is at the top of the standings, where he can usually be found, thanks to three wins. If not for a couple of mistakes on restarts, though, he’d probably have five. Don’t kid yourself — he’s still the best out there.
Bonus points: When it comes to Chase time, regular-season wins are going to be valuable. They’re worth three bonus points each, so Matt Kenseth has three points on Johnson right now in the Chase seedings. Second-place Carl Edwards has one victory, third-place Clint Bowyer has none, and fourth-place Kevin Harvick has two.
Hamlin’s hope: He had to miss four races because of a broken back, so he doesn’t have much room for error if he wants to race back into Chase contention. He has to get to 20th or better in points and win a couple of races. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand. But his average finish this year is only 19.2.
Mystery contenders: The championship is probably going to come down to Johnson vs. Kenseth. That’s no mystery. But there are enough races and enough time for unpredictable events for an unexpected contender to emerge — Joey Logano, anyone?
The decline of Jeff Gordon: Or maybe the return? The four-time champion may be seeing the end of his days as a title contender. His average finish has been 13.0 or worse for four consecutive years. But he’s won five times in those years, and he’s still in top equipment, poised to take advantage of a break.
The numbers so far
.129 Of a second, the closest winning margin this year, by Jimmie Johnson over Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Daytona 500.
1 Top-10 by a rookie this season, the eighth-place finish by Danica Patrick at the Daytona 500.
4 Winners from the pole this season: Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville and Pocono, Kyle Busch at TMS and Matt Kenseth at Kansas.
7 Victories each for Chevrolet and Toyota this season.
9.4 Average finish for Jimmie Johnson this season, the best of his career.
10 Top-10 finishes for Clint Bowyer, the most of any driver this year without a win.
11 Worst driver points finish of his career for Tony Stewart, who sits 17th in points at the midpoint.
19.2 Average finish this year for Denny Hamlin, the lowest at this point in any season of his career.
30 Lead changes at Talladega in April, the most of any race this season.
228 Laps led at restrictor-plate Daytona and Talladega this season by Matt Kenseth, the most of any driver.