When the 43-car field starts its engines on Sunday for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., it will mark the 19th race of the year as well as the start of the second half of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
Twelve different NASCAR drivers saw Victory Lane in the first half of the Sprint Cup season, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch leading the field with three Cup wins apiece. Veteran NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, four-time Sprint Cup champion and co-owner of Hendrick Motorsports, and Roush-Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth, with two victories each, are the only other drivers with more than one win thus far this season.
Among the 12 different race winners over the first 18 Cup races are three first-time winners in Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500 in February), Regan Smith (Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in May) and David Ragan (the Coke Zero 500, the second regular-season race at Daytona, earlier this month). The 12 winners is the most at the season's midpoint since 2003, when there were 14.
The conventional wisdom is, with NASCAR changing its rules to enable two cars outside of the top-ten drivers in points to make the Chase for the Cup field, two or more victories and a required top-20 finish should assure a driver one of the final two wild-card entries. Even with one win already under their belts, none of the three first-time Cup winners may make it in the second-half race for the Chase.
To begin with, Bayne declared for the Nationwide Series at the beginning of the year and is not eligible to earn Sprint Cup driver points. Smith, the winner at Darlington, has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to compete for a spot in Chase, which begins with race number 27 on the 2011 schedule. Smith's No. 78 Chevrolet, owned by Furniture Row Racing, is mired in 27th place in the standings, 225 points behind the Chase leader, Kyle Busch. Ragan is in a good position, currently 15th in the standings, but he also has four past Chase participants - Greg Biffle, Emporia, Kan.'s, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya - ahead of him in points, which could block his chances of qualifying for his first Chase for the Cup showdown.
With the season's second half set to get under way Sunday at New Hampshire, Ragan laid down the gauntlet to his fellow Chase competitors: "If we win another race, we're going to make the Chase," Ragan said boldly in an interview with USA Today. "If we struggle (and) don't win, it's going to be a dogfight," he said.
One of the highly noticeable developments that has caught the attention of NASCAR fans and drivers alike in the opening half of 2011 season is how varied and competitive the racing has been, with virtually someone new winning every week. "It's been very equal and unpredictable," said five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"It's not all about just all-out speed anymore," said Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, who currently sits 10th in the standings. "There are just so many factors that go into winning. It just changes the way you drive."
Greater parity may exist so far this season in the Sprint Cup Series, but when you look at the driver's standings, the same old names appear in the top ten. Behind the younger Busch brother is Carl Edwards from Columbia, Mo., who has ten top-five finishes to his credit over the first 18 races. Edwards led the Cup standings for most of the first half, but now trails Busch by a mere four points. Harvick is third, 10 points back of the leader, and Kurt Busch is fourth, 18 points down. Johnson is fifth in the race for the Chase heading into the second half of the season, followed by Kenseth, Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Hamlin.
Through the first 18 Cup races, half-season records have been set in total number of passes (3,940), as well as race leaders (14) and lead changes (31) per race, according to statistics provided by NASCAR.
Factoring all that has transpired over the first half of the Sprint Cup racing schedule, it's hard to imagine the racing being any better in the second half, which begins on Sunday.