Welcome to What We Learned, a new feature where we look back on the previous weekend's results and make some snap judgments on how the race will affect the rest of the season. Clip and save these, because we're going to seem prophetic a few months from now. And after Michigan II, we learned:
If you think you know who's going to win the Cup, you're wrong. The smart money has been on Jimmie Johnson taking championship No. 5, but after the last few weeks, if you think Johnson is going to walk to this Cup the way he has the last couple years, you're just not paying attention. Take a look at that crew of cars above -- you've got at least five guys other than Johnson who can take the Cup. And that doesn't even take into account guys surging like Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. The end of the Michigan race, where Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart dueled for the lead, showed that this could be the most exciting Cup in years. We hope. And speaking of Harvick ...
Kevin Harvick is a legit championship contender. For whatever reason, people have dismissed Harvick's championship chances all season long, figuring that even if he was at the front of the standings now, he'd fade during the Chase. But he's got three wins already, and his hang-around-and-vulture-a-win style isn't just working race-by-race, it might just work for the whole season too.
Hendrick Motorsports is having a little trouble closing the deal. Hendrick's last top-5 finish was way back in mid-July when Jeff Gordon finished third at Chicago. That's a span of five races and counting where no one from The Best Team Ever In NASCAR History has threatened at the end of the race. Now, just as the NBA championship goes through Los Angeles and the World Series goes through New York, the Cup goes through Hendrick Motorsports. But would you bet that a Childress, Gibbs, Penske, Stewart-Haas or Roush car won't win? I'm not going out on that limb.
Carl Edwards is sneaking up on people. After a season and a half of unspectacular results but all kinds of tabloid-style controversy, Carl Edwards is actually racing like the championship contender he was late in 2008. He's had top-7 finishes in six straight races, and he's quietly leading a Roush resurgence. Without a win before the Chase, he's climbing a hill, but as long as Hamlin and Johnson don't add to their bonus total, Edwards is running well enough that he could make up that difference in a hurry.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in serious trouble. 23, 27, 27, 26, 19. Those are Junior's last five finishes. All of the promise of the early season, the near-win at the Daytona 500, has vanished. Place the blame wherever you like -- the driver, the team, the crew chief, the shop, the gods of racing -- the end result is the same. And at the moment, I'm not seeing any light at the end of this long tunnel.
How about you? What did you learn this weekend? Have your say in the comments below.