The Sprint Cup Series stop at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400 marks the end of the first quarter for the 36-race season in NASCAR's premier series.
So it's early, too early even to make an educated guess whether Jimmie Johnson's lead in the standings has him primed for a run at championship No. 6. And too early to figure who might be his biggest road-block to a number of titles surpassed only by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Still there's plenty to ponder and lots to watch as the ninth Cup race approaches. We offer five story lines and five drivers for your consideration.
1. Will Denny Hamlin race?
The hometown favorite says he's 50-50, and it would no doubt be painful not to race on a track located just minutes from where he grew up — a place where he's won twice and averages about a seventh-place finish. But RIR is a physical place to return from a compression fracture of the back, and he's probably better served to wait for Talladega.
2. Kyle Busch goes for a five-peat.
His horrible day at Kansas notwithstanding, Busch has been good this year, with two wins, two poles and two top-fives. He been the master of RIR's 3/4-of-a-mile oval during the spring, winning the past four races, which makes it a great place to put the frustrations of Kansas behind him.
3. Tony Stewart is struggling.
Less than two years removed from his third Sprint Cup title, Stewart, who won his first Cup race at RIR in 1999, is in danger already of dropping from Chase contention. He's 21st in the standings with only one top 10 and 18 laps led. The other Stewart-Haas teams, 17th-place Ryan Newman and 25th-place Danica Patrick are struggling, too.
4. Gdovic aims for second K&N win.
On April 6, former Langley Speedway Late Model regular Brandon Gdovic of York County earned his first victory in the K&N Pro Series East, an increasingly prestigious stepping stone into NASCAR's upper echelons. The win didn't get him onto NASCAR's national teleconference like the one for Ben Kennedy of the France family a week later, but it was a big breakthrough going into the 100-lapper on Thursday at RIR.
5. Falk, Edwards look to shine in Hamlin Showdown.
C.E. Falk and Greg Edwards are both three-time champions in Langley Speedway's Late Model Division, considered one of the nation's toughest. But Falk's last-lap win over Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown in 2010, and Edwards' runner-up finish to Stewart in the 2012 event, are among their biggest highlights. Both will run in the Showdown on Thursday at RIR.
Drivers to watch
Joey Logano: Whether it's the highly publicized dust-ups with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, or being docked 25 points and $200,000 for unapproved parts, if there's been controversy in 2013, Logano has often been part of it. Because it was a wreck with Logano that sidelined Hamlin with an injury, Logano likely will be showered by boos during pre-race introductions on Saturday.
Danica Patrick: Patrick's first full season in Sprint Cup has been a parade of mediocrity punctuated by some impressive highs. She's mired in 25th in the standings, with six finishes in eight races of 25th or worse. Yet her pole and eighth-place finish at Daytona is an undeniable breakthrough for females in the sport, while even her critics had to applaud her 12th at tough Martinsville.
Matt Kenseth: The 2003 Cup champion has been invigorated by his move from Roush-Fenway to Joe Gibbs. Sitting eighth in the points, Kenseth's five top 10s include victories at Las Vegas and Sunday at Kansas. That's one more victory in eight races than he had in 36 en route to the '03 title. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who replaced Kenseth at Roush, is 18th in the standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It appears he'll never achieve the stardom many predicted for him in 2000, when he followed his first win at Texas with a victory at RIR several weeks later. But he's consistently running up front for the second year in a row — and currently sits in the top five of the Cup standings — so a run at a first Cup title would be no surprise.
Jimmie Johnson: Every Cup title seems to be his to lose, and when one slips away like last year, it feels like an upset. He enters Richmond with a solid 37-point lead atop the Cup standings, with two wins, a pole and six top 10s. Johnson has three wins at RIR, but the best he's done since his last trip to victory lane in 2008 is a third in 2010.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times