MID-MAY, 11 races into the lengthy Sprint Cup season, is an ideal time to assess the surprises and disappointments thus far.
Topping the surprises list is Matt Kenseth. In his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has won three of the first 11 races. That Kenseth (27 career Cup wins) is off to a blazing start with JGR isn't a total shock. However, getting up to speed with a new team sometimes takes a while.
Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff have immediately clicked, winning the season's third race together at Las Vegas. Kenseth paced the most laps (163) winning at Kansas and he led the most laps (142) at Talladega before finishing eighth.
Kenseth and his team withstood the huge penalties levied by NASCAR following their Kansas victory after their race car failed inspection. Kenseth was docked 50 points. An appeals decision reduced the points loss to only 12 and Kenseth is now third on the points chart.
Following his first win at Darlington last Saturday, Kenseth said the goal at JGR is to "continue to keep getting better. That's one thing I've seen over there pretty much from Day 1. They're not standing still. They're always trying to build a better car. TRD [Toyota Racing Development] is trying to build a better engine.
"I feel like the sky's the limit. This stuff has been incredibly fast. Jason and I have a special bond right away - with the whole team. Gosh, I couldn't feel much better about our year so far."
The No. 20 Toyota team won at Darlington with Wally Brown as interim crew chief while Ratcliff served his one-race suspension. Brown, a Widener University graduate from Elverson, Pa., was Carl Edwards' crew chief in 2005 when Edwards won four races and finished third in points. Brown's primary job is an engineer with JGR. Earlier in his career, Brown raced at Grandview Speedway, near Pottstown.
Surprise No. 2 is Kurt Busch. He's 18th in points and probably won't make the Chase, unless he wins a couple of races and qualifies as one of two wild cards.
Busch drives the No. 78 Chevrolet for a Denver-based team that isn't one of NASCAR power organizations. The 2004 Cup champion clearly is a racing talent, but he has been hampered by anger issues in recent years.
Last week, Busch tested an Indy car for Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis, leading some to think he might eventually move to open-wheel racing. Busch then set the track qualifying record at Darlington.
Aric Almirola is surprise No. 3. Four consecutive top-10 finishes before Darlington have Almirola ninth in points. The Florida native, in his second full Cup season, is pursuing his first Chase driving the famed No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Topping the list of disappointments is Tony Stewart. The three-time Cup champion (last title 2 years ago) is off to the worst start of his 15-year Cup career. Stewart is 21st in points with only one top-10 finish. Stewart did run eighth late in the Darlington race before finishing 15th.
We don't think Stewart, 41, suddenly has lost his racing touch. The big problem is, Stewart-Haas Racing hasn't figured out the new Gen-6 cars.
The good news for "Smoke" is, he traditionally heats up during the summer. Thirty-three of his 47 career victories have been registered from June through the end of the year.
Danica Patrick's troubles in her first full Cup season are attributable to the Stewart-Haas Gen-6 cars. Patrick is 28th in points with no top-10s since her eighth place in the season-opening Daytona 500. Still, Patrick should start showing signs of running closer to the front.
Finally, the disappointment list has to include Juan Pablo Montoya. In his seventh full Cup season, Montoya has only two wins: both on road courses where his open-wheel experience is an asset.
When Montoya, 37, arrived in NASCAR after racing Indy cars (he won the 2000 Indy 500) and Formula One, it was a big deal. However, Montoya has qualified for only one Chase. Since he is 22nd in points, it's unlikely he'll be Chasin' this year. On the positive side, Montoya almost won at Richmond three races ago (he finished fourth), and he placed eighth at Darlington.