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Sprint Cup review at the one-quarter mark in the NASCAR season

Sunday's race at Talladega marked the one-quarter pole for NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Here are some highlights and lowlights from the season's first nine races:

Biggest surprise: Until Sunday it might have been the early slump by Dale Earnhardt Jr., or the top-12 place in points for Zephyrhills' own David Reutimann. But really, the only right answer is Brad Keselowski's upset victory at Talladega. Leaving aside the scary, fence-bending ending with Carl Edwards, the race was only Keselow­ski's fifth Sprint Cup start and first at a restrictor-plate track. His best Cup finish coming in was 19th, and his previous four starts were in the No. 25 car for Rick Hendrick. He's the first driver since Jamie McMurray to get his first career top-10 finish with a victory.

Biggest disappointment: Richard Childress Racing got all three of its drivers into the Chase for the Championship last season, and all finished in the top six in points — Kevin Harvick was fourth, Clint Bowyer fifth and Jeff Burton sixth. Burton in particular had a renaissance, winning twice and leading the standings for a month. But 2009 has not been as kind to RCR, which added a fourth car for Casey Mears. Harvick is 20th in points and Mears, driving Bowyer's old No. 07 car, is 21st. Granted it's early, and Bowyer, now driving the No. 33 Chevrolet, has three top-five finishes to stand eighth in points while Burton is ninth. But the team hasn't gone this deep into a season without winning since 2004, when it finished winless.

Biggest loss: Seeing as it is in the middle of NASCAR country, it only makes sense that the Charlotte Observer would be one of the most influential newspapers covering the circuit. But David Poole made its coverage even more relevant. He died of a heart attack Tuesday at age 50. In addition to his work with the Observer, Poole hosted the Morning Drive show on Sirius NASCAR Radio. Dale Earnhardt Jr. paid the ultimate tribute Tuesday: "David Poole was as much a fixture in this sport as the actual cars themselves."

Biggest controversy: NASCAR's latest talking point is the rebirth of an old one. Restrictor-plate racing again became a point of contention at Talladega Superspeedway with Carl Edwards' flight into the fence on the final lap of the Aaron's 499. Perhaps the reason this issue won't go away — aside from TV ratings — is there is little agreement on what to do about the tight packs and big wrecks that restrictor plates breed. Jimmie Johnson said this week: "I don't know how we fix it unless we take a bunch of tractors out there and knock down the walls, knock down the banking, and make the track where you have to let off (the gas)."

Area ups and downs: David Reutimann of Zephyrhills is driving for a team that had little success in its first two full seasons. Aric Almirola of Tampa was driving for a bunch that had formed out of two teams that have seen some good fortune. So what has happened to the bay area's Sprint Cup drivers in 2009? Reutimann, who drives the No. 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, has had his two best career finishes (fourth in Las Vegas; eighth at Phoenix) and sits 11th in points. Almirola's No. 8 team for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing never finished in the top 20 in eight races. And that was the good news. The program then suspended its operations because of a lack of sponsorship.

Times wires contributed to this report.

Sprint Cup point standings

Through nine of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Kurt Busch 1,299—

Jeff Gordon 1,294 5

Jimmie Johnson 1,235 64

Tony Stewart 1,232 67

Denny Hamlin 1,190 109

Kyle Busch 1,124 175

Carl Edwards 1,119 180

Clint Bowyer 1,098 201

Jeff Burton 1,092 207

Greg Biffle 1,081 218

David Reutimann 1,077 222

Matt Kenseth 1,063 236

Tonight's race

Russ Friedman 400, 7:30, Richmond (Va.) International Speedway

TV: Ch. 13

Sprint Cup review at the one-quarter mark in the NASCAR season 05/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 3:55pm]

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