It’s postseason time in NASCAR, and despite it being the only points-paying system I’ve ever known, I still find it weird to hear the announcers, commentators, and analysts throwing around words like “postseason,” “playoff berths” and “wild cards.” That’s football or baseball terminology – even to this Brit. But here we are, I suppose, and regardless of the chagrin felt by many longtime fans it’s time for the 10-race Chase to begin. Beginning next weekend, the focus in the coming months will turn to which of these 12 men can win it all – burying the stories of those who fell short.
Instead, the focus will be on if either of the newly minted BFFs – Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – can take the prize, or whether Jimmie Johnson do what only the immortal Cale Yarborough has done and three-peat. In an instant, all eyes shift from Ken Ragan’s son David Ragan to if a certain famous son from Kannapolis, N.C. will do for the first time what his father did on seven occasions – bring home a series title. And instead of Ragan or Brian Vickers, people wonder if an unexpected challenger like Kevin Harvick (who’s bang on form) or Denny Hamlin (with three consecutive top-three finishes) could surprise the field and storm to an unlikely championship.
Over the next couple of months, there’s plenty of time to see how the Chase unfolds with all its drama – manufactured or otherwise. But before the gentlemen fire their engines at Loudon next Sunday, let’s take a quick look at those who didn’t make the Chase, and particularly those who started the seasons with pretensions of making the final field of 12. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m making a cutoff at the 25th position (as they run today) as even if there were drivers from David Reutimann on down who harbored ambitions of making the playoffs, said ambitions were more delusions of grandeur than based on any kind of realistic prognosis.
Unmitigated disappointments: Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler
It’s not been a banner year for the three names on this list – Mears especially. It was only a matter of time before he lost his ride at Hendrick, and the real question now is whether he has photos of some higher up at Richard Childress Racing doing something illegal? It’s about the only way to explain why they’re taking a chance on a man who has just one win and 12 top fives in 205 Sprint Cup races. And Mears, let’s not forget, has had some pretty top-drawer equipment over his career.
As for McMurray, well, he’s practically a category all his own in the dictionary under the word “disappointment.” His stats are marginally better than Mears, but two wins and 25 top fives in 211 races is just not getting it done. Once he’s jettisoned by Roush, it will sure be interesting to see if Jamie Mac gets another good ride. You’d have to say it’s unlikely after six straight seasons of struggle.
To finish off, Sadler has run better than his 22.6 average finishing position would suggest. It would, though, be a stretch to say that his No. 19 has made itself relevant again. Sadler has performed better than in 2007, with two top-five finishes and another four top-10 efforts so far. But for a man with a ton of Cup experience, 2008 will still end up being disappointing for Sadler in the final analysis – unless he pulls the proverbial rabbit out of his helmet and takes the checkers for the first time in 145 races.
Extenuating circumstances: Bobby Labonte
It hasn’t been an easy year for the likable veteran and 2000 series champ Labonte. His winless streak, at 170 races, is even longer than Sadler’s, and he hasn’t come close to breaking it in years. The takeover at Petty Enterprises hasn’t helped his situation, and for awhile he looked the sure bet for the fourth car at RCR. But Labonte’s decision to stay suggests he sees a brighter future for Petty Enterprises. Based on current form, it’s hard to see how – but things change quick in NASCAR, and a win for the No. 43 car would be among the most welcome sights the sport has seen in years.
Chase or Bust? Oh, definitely bust: Juan Pablo Montoya
Team owner Chip Ganassi’s “I don’t want to say Chase or Bust… but it’s Chase or Bust,” looks like one of the dafter preseason projections. That said – and with the benefit of some crystal clear hindsight – it was a very bad prediction. Would JPM be better in higher quality equipment? Perhaps, but in the NASCAR world that deals with harsh reality each week, we may never find out one way or the other.
The post-Daytona 500 season-long train wrecks: Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman
The Penske pals started the season in the best possible fashion, drafting together to give Roger Penske his first Daytona 500 win. Since then, neither can claim to have been legitimate factors in the race for the Chase. Yes, Busch scored a win at a rain-shortened Loudon, but he finished up the regular season a whopping 500 points out of contention. And Newman has run better this summer, but he was still a long way out of the reckoning when the playoff berths were doled out. Boy, do those eight wins in 2003 seem like an awful long time ago…
While we’re at it, I can’t see Newman doing much better at Stewart-Haas Racing next year, and if I were a betting man, I’d wager Newman’s career slides slowly downhill into obscurity from here on in.
The No-Luck Chaser: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex’s 150-point deduction following the July Daytona race dropped the Jersey native from 14th to 18th in the point standings, while the loss of crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion compounded matters for the No. 1 team. It’s hard to say he would have made the Chase without the point loss, but there’s little doubt his chances would have been significantly better. Better luck next year, Martin.
The Oh-So-Nearly Guys: Ragan and Kasey Kahne
Both Kahne and Ragan can feel slighted to miss out on this year’s Chase field, but 26 races is more than enough of a sample size. And despite Kahne’s two wins (three, including the All-Star Challenge) the Budweiser pitchman is on the outside looking in for the second year in a row. Ragan, meanwhile, was the surprise package of the year, almost snatching an unlikely Chase spot. You sense this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the dart that has suddenly found its feathers.
Better than advertised: Vickers
For a stretch in the early summer, it looked as if Vickers might just make it into the final field of 12. But one top-10 finish in seven races (and three finishes of 28th or worse) from Pocono through Richmond put the kibosh on his playoff pretensions. Chase aside, it’s been a much, much better second year for Vickers at Team Red Bull, and it’s obvious there is more to come from the No. 83 team in the next few years.
Lastly, I have to give a quick shout out to Travis Kvapil, who sits 23rd in the point standings. Given all the issues of sponsorship, the ownership shift at Yates Racing, and the fact he didn’t run a single lap in the Cup Series in 2007, Kvapil’s efforts in ’08 have been more than merit-worthy. He’s completed all but 35 laps this year – which speaks to his ability to keep his car out of trouble – and as I mentioned last week, he’s had some of the best paint schemes this year. Could he make the 2009 Chase field? Most certainly not; but it would be one of the best feel-good stories in NASCAR if he did.