The NASCAR racing series is just past the halfway point for the 2008 season, and the first half brought plenty of surprises and big moves and moments. Here's a breakdown of what's been happening and a look ahead at where things might wind up when all is said and done in November. The biggest surprise so far has certainly been Kyle Busch, the 23-year-old phenom behind the wheel of the #18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch was almost an afterthought with Hendrick Motorsports last season, but after switching teams at the beginning of the year, he has already amassed six wins across the three series -- double the win total of the next highest driver. Four of those wins came in key Sprint Cup races, and Busch now finds himself firmly cemented in first place in the standings with eight races to go before the Chase. Of course, even with his outstanding performance thus far, Busch is not the only top story from the first half. Perennial newsmaker Tony Stewart is once again attracting attention, despite the fact that he has yet to win a race this season. On Wednesday, Stewart announced he would be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, the team he has been with since 1999 and with whom he has racked up 32 total career wins and two championships. Stewart will be forgoing the final year on his contract and instead move next season to Haas/CNC Racing, where he will also be a part-owner. The move is expected to make Stewart the highest-paid NASCAR driver.
The race still goes on, though. Looking toward the second half of the season, the obvious favorite to keep dominating is Busch. His all-star first half puts him on pace for 12 victories this year, one short of the all-time record. And while Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team are the frontrunners for now, all eyes will be on competitor Hendrick Motorsports down the stretch and into next year. Hendrick recently signed veteran driver Mark Martin, who next season joins Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on the roster. It's a star-studded lineup of fan favorites and proven winners, and by all accounts Hendrick could be an early favorite to make a late-season run this year and perhaps take the championship in 2009. Of course, it's not all fun and business as usual in the land of auto racing. This first half has also seen a scandalous lawsuit that could severely damage the sport's reputation and image. Former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant filed a lawsuit against NASCAR, alleging both racial discrimination and sexism throughout the sport. If the numerous claims stand, the sport and those associated with it could face even more scrutiny and backlash. Here's a NASCAR primer for those who may not know: The typical NASCAR season features three tiers of races: the Sprint ( S) Cup Series, the Nationwide ( NFS) Series, and the Craftsman Truck series. NASCAR drivers receive points for performance in races across all three tiers, with the point totals determining the overall standings.
The Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck Series are the two lower tiers of races, neither as popular nor as widely followed as the Sprint Cup. What makes these races events out from the more popular Sprint Cup is the addition of non-Sprint Cup drivers. The Nationwide and Craftsman Series are a sort of minor leagues for younger or newer drivers, with the more well-known seasoned drivers often participating alongside. This has created some problems lately, as the veteran Cup drivers are dominating the lesser experienced competition. The Sprint Cup Series (formerly called the NEXTEL Cup) is the largest and most popular of the three tiers, consisting of the most well-known races such as the Daytona 500. The Cup Series, as its often shortened to, is a 36-race season with the last 10 races making up the "Chase for the Cup." For these last 10 races, all points totals are reset to zero, but the catch is that only the top 12 drivers in terms of points from the season up to that point are eligible to win the championship. All drivers still participate, so the field remains at 43 cars, but only the 12 highest points earners continue receiving points and are pitted against each other.