Looking back at the first quarter of the 2013 NASCAR season

USA TODAY Sports

With the NASCAR season one-fourth of the way complete, here’s a look back at the overachievers and underachievers of the first quarter.

The Daytona 500 may feel like it was just last week, but surprisingly the 2013 NASCAR season is already one-fourth of the way complete. And what a first quarter it's been with an abundance of stories giving us plenty to debate on a weekly basis.

In just nine races we've already seen multiple feuds erupt between drivers, a championship contender sidelined with injury, stirring finishes, two powerhouse teams incurring the wrath of NASCAR and of course, the much anticipated debut of the Generation-6 car.

Although much will change between now and Homestead, here is a look at the best drivers, crew chiefs and races of the first quarter along with some other awards.

Most Outstanding Driver

Although Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have as many wins and have led more laps than Jimmie Johnson, it's the five-time champ who gets the nod. And it's not even close.

Johnson has more top 10s than either Busch or Kenseth, has an average finish in single digits (7.2) and has shown more consistency on a week-to-week basis than the Joe Gibbs Racing duo. This is reinforced by the resounding 43-point lead he holds, a further separator that this season there is Johnson, and then everyone else.

Others Deserving Consideration: Kenseth, Busch.

Top Crew chief

There is no tougher category than this one, with plenty of worthy candidates. Jimmy Fennig has revitalized the 99 team and has turned Carl Edwards back into a title contender.

Under Dave Rogers' guidance, Kyle Busch has put behind him a discouraging 2012 season and appears on the brink of fulfilling his potential. Chad Knaus again has the 48 car as the benchmark the garage measures itself against. While Todd Berrier has transformed the single-car Furniture Row Racing outfit into a group that is capable of running with the sport's premiere teams.

However, what Paul Wolfe has done so far this year trumps the above.

In the offseason, the defending Cup champions undertook the difficult task of switching manufacturers from Dodge to Ford. But the transition has been seamless with Brad Keselowski opening the season with four straight finishes of fourth or better and seven top 10s in nine starts.

And it was races at Daytona and Kansas where Wolfe really demonstrated his importance. In both events, Keselowski suffered significant body damage early and fell well behind. Normally, that kind of mishap would result in a mediocre finish. Not so with the No. 2 team, who used sage pit strategy and dogged determination to post top 10s in both races.

Others Deserving Consideration: Fenning, Rogers, Knaus, Berrier.

Best Race

Before this year, races at Auto Club Speedway were often monotonous affairs featuring cars strung-out single-file. This year, however, there was side-by-side racing from the green flag to the checkered flag and a last lap clash between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano that will be remembered for years to come.

And while Hamlin's injury does cast a pall over the event, too much happened to diminish what was not only the best race in the 17-year history of the track, but the best race of 2013.

Others Deserving Consideration: Toyota Owners 400 (Richmond), Food City 500 (Bristol), Kobalt Tools 400 (Las Vegas).

Biggest Surprise

In his second full season in Cup, Aric Almirola is blossoming. Heading into Talladega he has a career-best three consecutive top 10s and if the Chase started today, he would qualify. And that he is doing all this driving for a team with limited manufacturer support and lacking key resources -- i.e. funding -- makes it all the more remarkable.

Others Deserving Consideration: Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray.

Biggest Disappointment

The easy answer as to why Tony Stewart has been so woeful this season can be attributed to the changeover to the Gen-6 car, which the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization by all appearances has struggled to adapt to.

But that still doesn't excuse the malaise that has set over the 14 team and has Stewart off to the worst start of his career. Through nine races he has just one top 10 with an average finish of 21.1 and sits 21st overall. More telling, he's in a six week stretch where he hasn't placed better than 17th and has led just one race all year.

This just isn't a slump Stewart finds himself in; it's a complete downward spiral.

Others Deserving Consideration: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon.

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