Early season NASCAR review: The surprising and not so surprising

Tom Pennington

A look back at some of the surprising and not so surprising moments through the first eight races of the NASCAR season.

After eight races in as many weeks and a schedule that crisscrossed the country from Florida to Arizona, California to Virginia, NASCAR took the Easter weekend off. The bye is just one of only two the Sprint Cup Series will enjoy in 2014, with the next respite not coming until July.

And with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick quickly acclimating himself to life at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kurt Busch breaking an 83-race winless streak and everything in-between, there have been no shortage of story lines this season. But of all that transpired what should be constituted as a surprise and how much of it did we collectively expect? The answers, well, may surprise you.

Surprising: Dale Earnhardt's high-level results

Considering he ended 2013 with five finishes of fourth or better maybe it shouldn't be a surprise Earnhardt's carried that performance to this season. However, that would be ignoring the giant cloud of uncertainty that hung over the No. 88 team following the announcement crew chief Steve Letarte would be leaving at the end of the year.

Would the news create a distraction for Earnhardt, who's at his best when he's most comfortable? With his future employment secure, would Letarte still be 100 percent committed to the grind of being a pit boss? But whatever doubt existed, vanished when Earnhardt strung together five finishes of third or better; a development few saw coming.

Not a surprise: Dale Jr. winning the Daytona 500

Despite not having won a restrictor-plate race in nearly 10 years, NASCAR's most popular driver has been among the best in the sport's marquee event including three runner-up finishes in the past four Daytona 500s. And with a more offensive mindset than he had shown previously, Earnhardt finally broke through to record his second Daytona 500 victory.

Surprising: There have been no unforeseen winners

The byproduct of NASCAR's new Chase criteria was that drivers with little to lose (i.e. those with mid-level teams) would be more incentivized to gamble in order to punch their playoff ticket. Thus far this hasn't developed. While this may change with visits to Talladega, Sonoma and Daytona upcoming, for now the winner's circle has been controlled by the usual suspects.

Not a surprise: Seven different winners in seven races

That the season opened with seven different winners through seven races is no great shock considering the list of names that encompassed that list.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano all had won the previous year, while the other two, Earnhardt and Kurt Busch had come close several times. And the rotating door to Victory Lane isn't a new trend: in both 2013 and 2011 it took until the sixth race before someone doubled up.

Surprising: Two prominent names still winless

Of the names who have won, there are two notable omissions not on said list: Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth led all drivers in wins (seven) a year ago, but has yet to come close this season. The same can't be said of Johnson, though, who could easily have three or four victories and is seemingly poised to roll off a host wins over the next couple of months.

Not a surprise: Harvick finds instant success with Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR has proven capable of building fast cars, and Harvick is as adroit wheelman as any in the garage. So it seemed a given the pairing would lend itself to victories at some point. And as Kenseth demonstrated last season, a talented driver set on reproving themselves is a recipe for early season success.

Surprising: The hype is now actuality

On how many occasions has a highly touted talent jumped to Cup only to flounder in a sea of disappointment?  It may be only eight races in, but Kyle Larson has more than showed why he's drawn comparisons to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Including a marvelous runner-up at Fontana, Larson has three other top-10s, and that he's done so with a team that regularly underperformed before his arrival only underscores his achievement.

Not a surprise: Harvick battles inconsistency

As brilliant as he has been, Harvick is still with a new team, working with new crew chief and crew guys. All of which explains why he sandwiched a pair of victories with finishes of 41st, 39th, 36th, 7th and 42nd in large part because of the kinks associated with joining a new team,

Surprising: The sophomore slump is alive and well

OK, so very few thought Danica Patrick would be a Chase contender, but the same cannot be said of her significant other. After a strong end to his rookie campaign and with the benefit of a year's worth of experience, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was supposed to breakout — much like he did in the Nationwide Series where he won the championship in his second season.

The early returns suggest that might be might not be attainable. Outside of a seventh at Daytona and a runner-up at Bristol, Stenhouse's best finish is 18th, and he sits 25th in points — just four spots ahead of Patrick.

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