Jul 6, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (88) races during the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR's Biggest Surprises and Biggest Disappointments

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Heading into race twenty of the 2014/2015 season – we are almost at the 3/4 pole of the “regular season”.  I am going to review what I feel are NASCAR’s biggest surprises and biggest disappointments of the season to date.  This will be examined partly through the NASCAR standings and partly on how the teams and drivers have been performing.

Surprises:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Has won two races already.  This is the first time he has won multiple races in a season since 2004.  Winning the “Super Bowl” of NASCAR’s season in the Daytona 500 set the season off on the right foot for him.  The most popular driver winning the most popular race.  Couple that with Pocono and his consistent runs this year, it bodes well for him and NASCAR as a whole.  I personally believe he is the front runner to the championship.  With Steve LeTarte retiring to the broadcast booth next year, there seems to be a Hollywood ending for the 88 team.

Jeff Gordon – With a win in the first nineteen races, a few near wins, leading the standings for the better part of the season and being consistent the 24 car has been a pleasant surprise.

Kyle Larson – With all the fan fare of the return of the 3 car in Austin Dillon, Larson has had an impressive run so far.  Four top 5’s, 8 top 10’s and 14th in the standings.  If the season ended today he would make the Chase.  What a huge upgrade for Chip Ganassi and the Target team from Juan Pablo Montoya.

Paul Menard – While not having a win, the 27 car has had a solid season and has been fast at most tracks.  11th in the standings put him solidly in the Chase hunt.  It seems to me Menard has finally matured and the results are evident on the track.

Ryan Newman – Newman has taken that 31 car that Jeff Burton nearly drove into oblivion the last few seasons and has made some noise.  Sitting 7th in the standings he has had a solid season so far.   It seems like he has landed in a good situation after a weird departure from Stewart-Haas Racing last year.

Penske Racing – Early in the season they would have been in the “Disappointment” section, however they have definitely hit on something in the set up of the car as they have ripped off five wins as a team.  They are looking strong at the moment.

Disappointments:

Tony Stewart – I know he is coming off a serious injury; which I believe he wasn’t ready to come back from.  His results support my opinion.  19th in the standings.  2 top 5’s, 6 top 10’s are not typical “Smoke” numbers.  Everyone expected him to flourish (as he always does) in the summer on the slick tracks that the heat produces.  We are all still waiting.

Kasey Kahne – Kahne doesn’t seem like the same driver from when he raced in the E

vernham number 9 Dodge.  He definitely has talent, equipment, knowledge but something is missing.  He shouldn’t be closer to 20th than 10th.

Kevin Harvick – With two wins, he is locked into the Chase.  However, he has been wildly inconsistent all year.  One can blame the pit crew all they want, but they win as a team and lose as a team as well.  He needs all of his group to functioning at peak performance come Chase time otherwise it will be an early exit for the 4 car.

Matt Kenseth – He sits fourth in the standings.  Has led the standings at points this year, but then why does he seem to be off his game.  No wins after a huge season last year.  Once he gets his first win, the competition better lookout as I feel more will follow.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Although not much was expected of him and Roush Fenway Racing is having a down season as a whole, 28th in the standings seems a little to far south for the 17 car.  He is battling his girlfriend for bragging rights as she sits 27th, a mere three points ahead of him.

Kurt Busch – Much was made about him revitalizing his career in the number 78 Furniture Row Racing ride last year.  He was a last minute addition to the SHR stables in the 41.  He has won a race this season.  Then why does he seem disappointing?  Sitting 25th in the standings is why.

Stewart Haas Racing – Four cars with the highest in the standings being 13th, with the other three holding down 19th, 25th and 27th.  Something’s amiss at SHR.

The racing has been great this season.  The best in a long time.  I feel the 88 car might just seal the deal this year.  It seems like everything is in place for him to do so. Wouldn’t that be a huge shot in the arm for Junior Nation and NASCAR as a whole.

Michael Eliadis is a contributor at beyondtheflag.com on the FanSided network. Follow us on Twitter at: @Beyond_The_Flag and “Like” us on Facebook 

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Tags: Dale Earnhardt Jr Fansided Network Jeff Gordon Kasey Kahne Kevin Harvick Kyle Larson Matt Kenseth Paul Menard Ricky Stenhouse Jr Ryan Newman Tony Stewart

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