So, we're five races into the 2008 Sprint Cup season. What have we learned? Who has surprised us? Who has been a disappointment?
Over the next three days, Y! Sports will break it all down, beginning today with the five biggest surprises so far in 2008.
1. Greg Biffle
Going into the 2006 season, Greg Biffle was among the favorites to win the Cup championship. He was coming off a six-win season in which he finished second in the points standings. Great things were expected of the Biff.
Not only did he fall short of winning the championship, he didn't even make the Chase.
In fact, Biffle missed the Chase again last year, leaving us to wonder if the Biff of old – the one who led all Cup drivers with six wins in 2005 – was gone forever.
Fast forward to 2008 and Biffle is once again a contender. He's already recorded three top-five finishes, which is only two fewer than he had in all of 2007, and he's currently second in the standings.
It may be a bit too early to count Biffle as a championship contender, but it's not too soon to predict he'll make the Chase in 2008.
2. RCR's revival
Despite qualifying all three drivers for the 2007 Chase, Richard Childress Racing lacked the consistency and power to mount a legitimate championship charge. They were in it, but never really a threat to win it.
So far in 2008, they've looked like true championship contenders. Kevin Harvick (third in the points standings) hasn't finished worse than 14th; Jeff Burton (fourth) has led a lap in four of the five races; and over the last two weeks Clint Bowyer (ninth) is beginning prove that 2007 wasn't a fluke.
No doubt everyone in the field has benefited from the early-season struggles of the Hendrick organization, but that takes nothing away from RCR, which has repositioned itself, once again, as one of NASCAR top-tier teams.
Vickers is no dummy. He knew what he was getting himself into last season when he left the comforts of Hendrick Motorsports for a start-up team in Red Bull Racing. But he was never going to be the man at Hendrick. In fact, he was never going to be the second or third man, either.
So to be the man, he took a risk.
Though Red Bull still has a long way to go to catch Hendrick, Vickers is in a far better place now than he was a year ago. He's solidly in the top 35, meaning he and his team can now focus on getting results in the race, rather than just trying to get in the race itself.
Sure, if he were still driving for Hendrick, Vickers would probably be higher than 17th in the points standings. But ultimately he'll get a better shot at winning a championship where he is than where he was.
4. Ryan Newman's Daytona win
Here's what he had going against him:
• He was on an 81-race winless streak.
• His car owner, Roger Penske, was 0-for-23 in the Daytona 500.
• Penske Racing had never won a restrictor-plate race.
Restrictor plate races are always a crapshoot, and on the final lap Newman rolled the dice perfectly. He stayed behind Tony Stewart just long enough, then when Stewart went low he went high, riding the push from Kurt Busch straight to victory lane.
It wasn't as thrilling as the 2007 Harvick-Martin finish, but it was no less brilliant.
5. Robby Gordon's penalty
NASCAR never – never – overturns penalties, so when the "independent" National Stock Car Racing Commission rescinded the 100-point penalty leveled against Robby Gordon for using an unapproved nose, hell reportedly froze over in some parts.
Joking aside, NASCAR – through the "independent" appeals panel – did the right thing. Gordon didn't know he was using the wrong nose, would have gotten no benefit even if he had used it, and the 100-point penalty would have been a virtual death penalty for him had it stood.