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Danica Patrick, Paul Menard and Casey Mears are quietly having breakout seasons

Posted On Sunday, 12 April 2015 20:00 Written by
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All the hype this NASCAR season is focused on the big names, the guys winning races -- understandably so.

Kevin Harvick is a contender to win every week and likely the favorite to win the championship for a second straight year.

Jimmie Johnson, despite having some rough weeks, is as good as he's always been and will no doubt step up come Chase time; he's already got a couple wins under his belt, just like Harvick.

Other running up front regularly include Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch. And Martin Truex Jr. is finishing top-10 every week, after a 2014 where he couldn't do anything right -- quite a turnaround for that team.

But beneath all of that, there are some names doing surprisingly well, as least compared to how they have run in past seasons, meaning the team has moved up to that next level, and while these drivers aren't at a point where they are competing for wins -- I wouldn't be surprised if that came to pass by the end of this season or next year.

Here's my thoughts on those mid-pack who are impressing so far in 2015.

1. Paul Menard
Richard Childress Racing has seen a bit of a resurgence this past year, and Paul Menard is reaping the rewards.

After a career marked by inconsistency, he's a regular presence toward the front of the field in 2015. Engine woes plagued him at Texas but Menard is still within the Chase grid and shows signs he'll be there come playoff time.

As Ryan Newman showed last fall, whether or not you win a bunch of races (or any), if you make the playoffs you can be champion -- Newman was literally one position away from doing it at Homestead.

There's no reason Menard couldn't pull off a similar feat in 2015.

2. Danica Patrick
No, she's not lighting the world on fire or competing for wins. But the thing with Danica is that even when she is doing better, it's never good enough in the minds of her doubters. Until she wins a race, she is all hype in their mind.

News flash. That isn't true (if it were, about 20 men on the track are also all hype since they haven't won a race either).

And the fact is that Danica is making progress. She is running well on a weekly basis and is just a single point outside of the Chase grid right now. Her achievement is leaps and bounds above when she arrived in NASCAR and literally admitted she didn't know what she was doing at times. At that point, the criticisms of her as hype may have been valid. But now, she has proven she belongs in Cup based on her performance.

Danica finished top-10 this year at Martinsville, a very difficult track that tests driver skills, and unlike previous years where she would be quickly lapped, Danica is hanging on the lead lap all day and regularly passing drivers throughout the day.

I predict a finish in points between 15th and 20th, and she could contend for a win this fall at Martinsville, or perhaps other tracks if her trajectory continues to improve.

She will never be a dominant driver like Jimmie or Harvick have been lately, but I can't say with confidence that she'll never win a race -- as she's shown the skills to do so.

3. Casey Mears
In large part thanks to its affiliation with the Richard Childress Racing team, the Geico Racing #13 car of Casey Mears is having its best season yet. Currently hanging just inside the cutout for making the Chase, it's entirely realistic this team could be around for the playoffs.

For a one-car team, that is pretty amazing. The key will be continuing the trend of staying on the lead lap and getting finishes in the teens, which is critical for them to maintain their points position. And as the year goes on, they should only get stronger, so who knows -- they could end up realistically targeting single-digit finishes come playoff time. That won't win you a title, but it would be a huge step for this small team battling giants each week.

AutoTechReviews can be reached on Twitter @AutoTechReview. Follow the AutoTechReviews Facebook page at www.facebook.com/autotechreviews; Matt Myftiu can be reached on Twitter @AutoTechReview.

Matt M. Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

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