The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Five Teams Looking To Save Their Season Five Races In by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 3, 2013

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Did You Notice?… For every team in contention for this year’s Chase, there’s another dangerously close to early elimination? You’d think, five races in, that wouldn’t be the case, considering debates surrounding whether Denny Hamlin can miss that period of time and still charge back into the playoffs.

But, by and large, as has been widely reported in recent years, strong starts in the point standings, even this early, typically hold up come September. Here’s a quick look at how many drivers eligible for the Chase, five races in went on to earn a bid once the regular season was complete…

2007: 10 of 12
2008: 8 of 12
2009: 7 of 12
2010: 10 of 12
2011: 9 of 12
2012: 9 of 12

On average, that means only nine of the 12 drivers that would be “postseason” eligible, as of now are going to make the Chase without a problem. You’d have to think that list includes championship rivals Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, both safely within the top 10; point leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; Phoenix winner Carl Edwards; Roush Chase mainstay Matt Kenseth; Hendrick powerhouse Kasey Kahne; and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, earning a win apiece in Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. We’ll open it up slightly, claiming number nine, Denny Hamlin has opened the door for someone else with his injury. But at most, that leaves four spots and you’ll see plenty of big names below amongst the five teams truly struggling. Not all of them will be able to recover in time; who has the best shot?

Let’s find out.

Team #1: Stewart-Haas Racing
Drivers: Tony Stewart (22nd in points, -37 from 10th); Ryan Newman (20th in points, -24 from 10th); Danica Patrick (29th in points, -58 from 10th)

Ouch! Moment: Phoenix. Ryan Newman wrecked, than made himself a YouTube video for the awkward way he exited the car. Danica Patrick blew a tire and crashed a short time later; even Tony Stewart’s eighth-place finish wasn’t enough to offset that body shop bill.

Analysis: OK, raise your hands; how many of you thought Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart would have the same number of top-10 finishes at this point? (For the record, it’s one). Everyone could see the Danica slump coming but I think few expected that disaster to spread elsewhere within SHR. Bad luck has certainly exacerbated things, like the Fontana block turned trash talk around the world or Newman’s blown engine at Las Vegas. When right, these Hendrick chassis offshoots have shown the speed is there within the Gen-6 to contend. What’s mounting, though are the number of off-track distractions that, from this point on will only increase. For Patrick, now the pressure’s on after showing little to no signs of life post-Daytona. For Newman, with Kevin Harvick looming in 2014 the prospects of getting his own sponsorship to stay a part of SHR will eventually have an effect. And then, there’s Stewart, whose temper boileth over with Joey Logano at the same time he’s about to get a complex set of rules at Eldora.

Prospects: For Stewart, they’re good. He’s the best driver, in my mind currently ineligible and has the ability to heat up at will come summertime. Even if he’s 12th in points, with 2-3 wins that should always be enough for a “wild card.” Newman’s is a little less clear. At this point, he’s led only three more laps than his car number (42) since the start of the 2012 season. Considering his last victory, Martinsville in early ’12 was a fluke it’s going to take climbing up into the top 10 in points, the hard way for Newman to recover in time. I think that’s going to be difficult to near impossible.

As for Danica? Move on, boys. Nothing to see here.

Team #2: Richard Petty Motorsports

Drivers: Aric Almirola (17th in points, -20 behind 10th), Marcos Ambrose (23rd in points, -38)

Ouch! Moment: At Bristol, Almirola destroyed his machine only for Ambrose to play copycat the next week at Fontana. A series of tire failures left the No. 9 arm looking rather amateurish en route to 36th.

Analysis: Oh, how the mighty have fallen for King Richard’s Court (or cars) in what’s become a “Chicken or the Egg” type of question. Dodge passed on an opportunity, last year to pair with this team because they didn’t think they were capable of contending. Well, here we are, five races in and without a top-10 finish… making it look like, well, they’re not capable of contending.

But could it be Dodge’s desire to ditch them that caused this mess in the first place? Left with no viable alternative, RPM had to stick with Ford in 2013 only to be knocked down the ladder two more pegs. With Penske Racing now sharing engines, with Roush Fenway plus the past success of Brad Keselowski on board RPM is like the red-headed stepchild they have to help because Daddy Ford said so. It’s hard to be a third-tier operation now, within a Blue Oval crowd that has its limits and say you’re going to make the postseason.

Prospects: At this rate, Ambrose will be heading back to Australian competition, permanently before the season is out (rumors had him almost doing so last year). Almirola, while closer in the points has been a big disappointment after charging out of the box late last season with Todd Parrott. The gap is closer to make up, but with no history of sustained success on his resume you have to wonder if that’s possible.

Team #3: Jeff Gordon

Driver: 18th in points, -22 behind 10th

Ouch! Moment: A contender at Bristol, running up front until an ugly late wreck Gordon left the day licking his wounds in 34th. Not only did Gordon lead 66 laps but he very well might have been the only car with anything for teammate Kasey Kahne.

Analysis: NASCAR’s newest chassis were supposed to be the framework from which Hendrick Motorsports would stomp the competition. In a sense, three of them have, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne remaining a step above the field. But that hasn’t trickled down to Gordon, out to lunch at times even when his shopmate, in the No. 5 car is winning races. The ability to run up front is there but a slow, steady slip in qualifying and a constant concern about the car running well in traffic remains a concern.

Prospects: It’s hard to count Gordon out, considering the bonzai run he had back into Chase contention from the depths of disaster in 2012. But at some point, the run of DNFs and shooting oneself in the foot has to stop.

Team #4: Michael Waltrip Racing

Full-Time Drivers: Clint Bowyer (13th in points, -8 behind 10th); Martin Truex, Jr. (19th, -23 behind 10th)

Ouch! Moment: Both men combining to lead a total of one lap so far in 2013.

Analysis: What is it with this runner-up curse? After having arguably a decent Daytona car, 11th place more the result of track position and Gen-6 woes than team deficiencies Bowyer has struggled to keep the No. 15 in contention. Most concerning of all, for him is an average finish of 31st at the tracks 1.5 to 2 miles in length. The intermediates, combined with fuel mileage were this team’s bread and butter last year. Bowyer’s raw talent can make up for a bad short track car… but not there. They need to talk with the No. 56 bunch, in a hole since Daytona but at least showing mild strength at Las Vegas and Fontana.

Prospects: Bowyer can win, consistently year-to-year so even in the toughest of scenarios you’d have to think he’ll squeeze out at least one. But will that be enough? As for Truex, Jr., throughout the Chase it seemed like he was simply happy to be there. But we all know happiness doesn’t “buy” a playoff bid, right?

Team #5: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

Drivers: Jamie McMurray (16th, -20 behind 10th); Juan Pablo Montoya (30th, -62 behind 10th)

Ouch! Moment: At Fontana, when Montoya had to pit for transmission issues at the same time poor stops doomed McMurray.

Prospects: For McMurray, I think there’s a chance at the Chase, one he’s never made throughout an entire career. Hard to say the same for Montoya when the Colombian hasn’t won an oval track race, ever and he’s on year 7.

Did You Notice?… A few very quick hits before we go…

- Mark Martin, racing the No. 11 at Martinsville? It may be his best shot to win an actual short track race in a decade.

- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was recruited by Sprint for its campaign to prevent texting and driving. But wouldn’t Brad Keselowski, considering his recent history be the better spokesman? “Want to go to college, kids? Well don’t let NASCAR take $25,000 from your wallet for that text to your girlfriend at a stoplight. Just see what happened to me after a red flag…”

- How old is Martinsville on the Cup schedule? None of the 43 entrants this Sunday were even born during the first NASCAR Cup event held here in 1949. Amazing how this little .526-mile paperclip has held up through the years, producing profitably, bumper cars and side-by-side competition at reasonable speeds. Perspective track buyers of the future, are you taking note?

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