NASCAR a thrill halfway to Chase

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a contender, a real championship contender.

Jeff Burton isn't a championship contender.

Jimmie Johnson's only victory came in a restrictor-plate race when Earnhardt pushed him across the finish line.

Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski all have a victory. Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch don't have one.

Richard Childress puts Kyle Busch in a headlock and pummels him like it's a medieval torture session.

Five months ago, those statements would have looked a little crazy. OK, maybe not that last one, but it's all true at the halfway point to the Chase.

Sprint Cup is 13 races into the 26-event regular season before the 10-race playoffs begin, and a lot of good things are happening for NASCAR.

• Let's begin with the crown prince -- Earnhardt. Reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

Earnhardt ranks third in the standings and has two runner-up finishes. His turnaround is the surprise of the season coming off the last two years (he finished 25th in 2009 and 21st last year).

"We've had some runs where we drove ourselves into the positions where we finished," Earnhardt said Sunday after the race at Kansas. "And we've finished well by running well and getting lucky. That's what championship teams do."

Steve Letarte is well on his way to crew chief of the year with the job he's done leading Earnhardt back to success.

Letarte's biggest achievement has nothing to do with the technical aspect of racing. It's psychological. He found a way to make Earnhardt believe in himself again and regain his confidence.

Earnhardt believes he can win again, and he will soon. He is a much better driver than many people think, so I'm not surprised to see him back in Chase contention. I am surprised to see him racing well enough to possibly contend for the championship.

What's good for Earnhardt is good for NASCAR. If he starts the Chase in the top five with a win or two under his seatbelt, and the NFL isn't playing games, NASCAR will receive more attention in the fall months than it has in a long time.

• Burton is 24th in the standings and out of playoff contention. That's not a good thing, but the good news is he still has hope (with the new wild-card format for the last two playoff spots) if he can pull off a couple of wins before the Chase.

He's behind all three of his Richard Childress Racing teammates, two of whom (Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer) are in the top 10.

Burton started the 2010 Chase 10th, but signs of his fall started in the playoff when he finished 20th or worse in five of the last seven races.

Burton, however, isn't alone among drivers who many expected to contend but find themselves struggling. Jamie McMurray, who won three races last year, including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, ranks 27th. Well, he still can win the Brickyard 400.

Joey Logano, who finished seventh of better in five of the last six races in 2010, ranks 25th and has only one finish better than 10th. Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli aren't exactly seeing things eye to eye these days.

• Johnson is second in the standings with eight top-10s, so saying he's in a slump would be unfair at best. But is this the Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team we have grown accustomed to seeing the last five years?

The team has made some surprising mistakes on pit road, despite the new one-group concept of sharing the best crew guys with Earnhardt's team.

Johnson had four victories at this point a year ago but ranked seventh in the standings, so maybe we're all just over-emphasizing every little flaw for a five-time champion.

Nevertheless, Johnson looks beatable at the moment. Nothing against JJ and his greatness, but NASCAR could use a new champ.

Johnson has looked beatable before and come back to out-run everyone in the Chase. The one difference this year is the equipment. The Fords appear to have an advantage on the Chevys, something no one would have said a year ago.

• Next to Earnhardt running the well, the best thing for NASCAR is to see new winners and surprising winners among young drivers on the rise.

It started with Bayne's emotional win for the Wood Brothers in the Daytona 500 and continued to Smith's victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington.

Brad Keselowski You can only put yourself in position for so long and not have something good happen to you eventually.

-- Brad Keselowski

Bayne had a health issue that sidelined him, but he returned over the weekend and had an impressive third-place finish in the Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

And who would have guessed Keselowski would be the Penske driver with a victory instead of Kurt Busch?

"You look at our runs this year," Keselowski said after his win at Kansas on Sunday. "We've been top-5, top-10 cars at a lot of races and caught bad breaks. You can only put yourself in position for so long and not have something good happen to you eventually. It did today."

NASCAR needs new names winning races. A few others could join the crowd later this season, like Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger or possibly David Ragan.

And it's nice to see real Nationwide drivers -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier -- going to Victory Lane in recent races.

• Somewhere, Dale Earnhardt Sr. is chuckling, watching his old boss and best friend put a whipping on Kyle Busch.

Childress got angry, went retro on Busch, and it cost Childress $150,000. I'm sure Richard considers it an investment.

You'd have to go to Texas and confront a man named A.J. Foyt to find an old codger tougher than Childress. But it sure kept NASCAR front and center in the sports news.

NASCAR officials couldn't script it better than this, folks. All they can do now is hope the second half of the regular season lives up to the first half.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.