With the annual semi-farce that is Bruton Smith's All-Star Race now on the horizon, we look at the Cup teams and how they look going in -
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS - Not the juggernaut they've been in the past, Hendrick Motorsports instead is strikingly balanced as Jeff Gordon has a win and Junior has a win. Jimmie Johnson is winless but has led 572 laps so far; that he's winless this deep into the season has surprised a lot of people. The car left behind has been Kasey Kahne, who's managed to show some rebound the last two races, especially at Kansas.
STEWART-HAAS RACING - Gene Haas' activities have given this outfit a bit of a drama-queen quality, yet it has three wins so far and has been decidedly ahead of Hendrick Motorsports, the supplier of SHR's machinery. The striking fact about SHR's season, however, is how poorly they're doing in points, with Kevin Harvick, the clear leader of this gang, only 15th in points. Even with the irrelevancy of the regular-season points standings, this is a surprising fact.
PENSKE RACING - The top Ford team, Penske Racing is Joey Logano's outfit now; Brad Keselowski is just along for the ride, and it's showing more and more. Logano suddenly is for real as a title contender.
JOE GIBBS RACING - Despite missing a race, Denny Hamlin is 11th in points while teammates Matt Kenseth - like Johnson curiously winless - and Kyle Busch are in the top three in points. Kenseth has led the most laps of the JGR squad at 271, which makes his lack of a win so far surprising. JGR is Toyota's top team and that's not enough for Toyota to make the run; there needs to be more firepower here.
ROUSH-FENWAY RACING - Carl Edwards is almost this outfit's only contender, and it hasn't been close to enough of a fight to take RFR seriously outside of winning some races. Greg Biffle has been good but not great, while Ricky Stenhouse hasn't even been all that good at 25th in points.
RCR ENTERPRISES - That Ryan Newman is eighth in points right now is downright insulting. There has been no sustainable fight out of this team all season, shown in the paltry 56 laps led by what is supposed to be a juggernaut. Newman's points position combines with an even bigger surprise - that Austin Dillon is 14th in points. Dillon won the Daytona 500 pole and has been mostly MIA since. Paul Menard at 15th is too high for his woeful talent level, but he at least led with some authority at the plate tracks.
MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING - Unnoticed has been Brian Vickers, now tenth in points. Quietly he's clawed into contention and a pair of fourths plus 30 laps led at Darlington combined with his Talladega bid show MWR, despite a battered reputation from last season, isn't dead after all. Curiously quiet has also been Clint Bowyer, 21st in points and struggling in two of the last three races.
GANASSI-SABCO RACING - This is an outfit on the rise again with what may be a long-bomb touchdown of a driver choice in Kyle Larson. Much better than I expected, Larson has outclassed the rest of the rookie race after a slow start to the season. He's clearly taking over this outfit from Jamie McMurray, who managed two top-tens in the first five races and has been MIA since.
BRAD DAUGHERTY RACING - As a one-car team I'm not sure they can sustain the run they've been on so far, but AJ Allmendinger has been another one quietly putting up surprising runs that make him better than his mediocre points position (17th) would indicate.
RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS - Expectations for this outfit weren't all that hot going into 2014, but RPM has been quietly defying expectations. Aric Almirola has shown legitimate improvement under new crew chief Trent Owens and the Kansas effort has been the best so far. Marcos Ambrose has been more erratic but has a pair of top-fives to go with his much-publicized garage set-to with Casey Mears. Suddenly it isn't implausible to think Richard can see another win.
GERMAIN RACING - Speaking of Casey Mears, the one word to describe his career is non-achievement, a fitting description of crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker as well. It's continuing with the small Germain outfit.
BARNEY VISSER RACING - Now we're seeing why Martin Truex Jr. hasn't done much in his Winston Cup career - Kurt Busch got 11 top-fives and nearly 500 laps led out of Furniture Row's outfit in 2013, and this year Truex has one top-ten and no laps led. Truex has entered Greg Sacks territory.
HARRY SCOTT JR. - Justin Allgaier is competing against all odds and it shows; his Talladega victory bid still warrants great respect.
TOMMY BALDWIN JR. RACING - The disappointment of the season may be Michael Annett, who showed real racing form in the Busch Series yet has not translated any firepower into Cup.
FRONT ROW MOTORSPORTS - Bob Jenkins - no, not the former telecaster - got the upset of the decade in 2013 in the most electrifying win a lot of people have ever seen with David Ragan's Talladega win. That magic has not reappeared and fielding David Reutimann for a few races didn't improve anything.
THE REST OF THE FIELD - The only other team worth mentioning is Wood Brothers Racing as Trevor Bayne raced at Daytona and led two laps then raced at Talladega and led six laps - he also had decent efforts at Vegas and Fontana.
The field thus gathers for the All Star Race as a season that's already been a little strange may get more so.