What we’ve learned in NASCAR this year

The opening segment of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been filled with surprises and exciting moments. Eight races into the year, teams and drivers already find themselves making adjustments and spending the off weekend trying to get even better.

They also will be taking a few moments to reflect on some of the season’s more exciting moments to date and the lessons learned so far. In eight races, the Cup series has seen seven winners. Three manufacturers have been to Victory Lane.

In a year with a new points system, new six-man pit crew and altered fueling process, here are some things that fans and teams have already learned:

Rookies can win

Restrictor-plate racing is supposed to be a learned process, one that takes a few tries to master. Don’t tell that to Trevor Bayne. In the season-opening race, the part-time Cup driver paired with the long-running Wood Brothers Racing team to make his second-ever Cup start, and his first at that famed track. He proved to be a master of the new two-car tandem style of drafting throughout practices and his qualifying race.

Then the 20-year-old went out and stunned the field, and charmed fans, by winning the Daytona 500 in his first start in the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back

When Rick Hendrick shifted his team’s alignment during the offseason, most crew chiefs and drivers involved in the exchange — only five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remained aligned — pointed out that Hendrick knows people and has a history of crafting solid partnerships. That has proven to be the case.

Jeff Gordon snapped a winless streak with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, but perhaps more riveting to NASCAR’s fan base is the re-emergence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has been knocking on the door of a victory all season and seems to have formed a quick bond with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Perhaps more important, he’s sitting third in the points with 18 races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, which has fans wondering once more: Could this be his year?

Second does hurt

Tony Stewart was upset to finish as the runner-up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, famously uttering, “Second sucks.” Clint Bowyer pretty much echoed that sentiment when he finished second to Johnson at Talladega Superspeedway by 0.002 seconds, tying the closest finish since electronic timing and scoring began. And Denny Hamlin must feel the weight of that mantra as well after finishing second to Johnson in the 2010 points standings, then struggling through the opening segment of races this year.

Hamlin admitted last winter that it was hard to handle losing the points lead, and the title, in the season-ending race. He has denied that it is affecting his 2011 run. But others have been quick to point out the connection — and the fact that the driver who won eight of the 36 races last season sits 17th in the standings this year. Perhaps that further proves that finishing second really does hurt.

Points do matter now

Since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup system in 2004, teams have become increasingly proficient at learning to master the art of making that field. They learned that setbacks in those early races didn’t matter, and that as long as one was securely in the Chase, anything could happen once the field was reset after the season’s 26th race. Now, though, with finish positions separated by only one point and bonus points harder to come by, it seems to be more difficult for teams to make up lost ground.

A team can acquire a maximum of 48 points in a race if it garners all bonuses. Right now, only seven teams are within 48 points of leader Carl Edwards. Denny Hamlin is 100 points behind the leader and 50 points outside of the top 10. While it’s not impossible to make up that deficit, teams clearly must spend the off weekend assessing the impact of those positions.

Change is hard

There’s more to losing the sixth man on the pit stop than it might appear. The stops have been altered enough to upset the rhythm of the men trying to get those cars in and out in a matter of seconds. It has shown, too. Pit stops have showcased a delicate balance this season that have been the downfall for more than one team aiming for the win. The crew members have learned that they must adjust quickly now to stay in contention.

Parity is back

Last year, Hamlin led the field with eight wins. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, added three to the team’s tally. Johnson won six for Hendrick and Kevin Harvick and Bowyer won a total of five for Richard Childress Racing. Still, the victories were spread out over a series of teams, a trend that has been amplified this season. Seven drivers have victories in the opening eight races — RCR’s Harvick is the only repeat winner of the year.

Five organizations have wins. Three manufacturers have victories. We have a first-time winner (Bayne). We have seen drivers who have snapped rather lengthy winless streaks (Gordon, Matt Kenseth). And we witnessed a tie for the closest margin of victory since the advent of timing and scoring (Johnson over Bowyer at Talladega). So far, things are looking pretty equal at the front of the pack.

Boys no longer have at it

One of the more surprising developments this season is the lack of confrontation on the track. Last year, driver feuds were already boiling over at this point as NASCAR’s new policy of taking more of a hands-off approach came into play. This year, there’s been a little bit of grumbling and some comments have been made, but at tracks such as Bristol and Martinsville, tight places where drivers struggle to stay out of trouble to start with, the tempers seem to have been relatively in check. Will this continue through the hot summer months?

Spotters rule

Those eyes up high have always been a crucial part of racing. This year, they are running the restrictor-plate events. They work to find drafting partners for their drivers, they tell drivers pushing another car where they are going and help drivers navigate the track that they can’t see for their drafting partners. Spotters are important to racing everywhere, but they are the key to the restrictor-plate events now that cars draft in two-car pairs with the pusher seeing little more than the car he is pushing.

Paul Menard

After the 2010 season, Menard shifted to the Richard Childress Racing organization, becoming that group’s fourth Sprint Cup team. RCR had tried a fourth team before, with lackluster results. Menard had tried a team change before, moving from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Richard Petty Motorsports, with an equal lack of gain. However, this partnership has proven to work well for both groups. RCR has a greater understanding of how to make an added team work, and Menard has more Cup experience under his belt.

Now, Menard has gained added consistency in his runs and has been in the top tier of the standings throughout the season. He’s 11th in points, with three top-10 finishes and a pair of top fives. He seems capable of breaking through with his first Cup victory this season. Who, besides those who work with the driver, would have predicted that in January? Menard has quietly and competitively silenced those who wondered if either he or the team were ready for this transition.

Jamie McMurray

This should be his year. Last year, McMurray won the Daytona 500 and then won again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. He missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup field, though, leading to a debate about whether multiple wins should guarantee one a spot in the field. This year, they will. NASCAR altered the points system during the offseason to allow two wild-card spots in the Chase for drivers not in the top 10, but inside the top 20, who have the most victories to make the field.

So far, McMurray isn’t in contention for that. Although we are only eight races into the season, he has struggled at times this year and sits 23rd in the standings, 114 points behind the leader and 64 points outside of the top 10. That is surprising to those who watched McMurray and his team gain ground last season. One suspects, though, that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and its stellar horsepower will be back in contention before the next break in the schedule.