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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: 5 Things to Look for in the Final 5 Races of 2009

As an editor, you’ve got to have all sorts of column ideas in your back pocket in case someone calls out sick. And sure enough, Danny Peters (who usually fills this space on Tuesdays) got a little case of the flu before he could scribble down his thoughts by deadline.

So that leaves me with a nice idea that I get to knock off my list now before it’s too late. You see, what I was thinking was that with five races left, the championship’s a non-issue while plenty of fans are looking at a certain organization 1-2-3 in points and going, “Why should we watch? That’s not my favorite team.” But there’s still plenty of other things to focus on before this year is out – yes, even ones that have nothing to do with the championship. (Promise!) Here are five big reasons to stay tuned over the final five races (assuming you’re not a Hendrick fan):

1. Can last year’s win leader keep from getting shut out in 2009?

It’s hard to believe Carl Edwards went from nine victories just one year ago, including wins in two of the last three races, to a goose egg in that column in 2009. Last weekend was the low point for the No. 99 team this year, with a car so ill-handling it was three laps down before the engine blew to give them a “mercy killing” (as Edwards called it) en route to a 39th-place finish. That leaves him 336 points out with five races left, the second straight year this race has officially killed his title hopes (remember the mechanical failure last fall?) as the AFLAC team is now forced to focus on 2010.

But despite falling short on the biggest goal, no one wants to end a season winless – which gives Ford’s number one driver something to race for. And now that the pressure’s off, the preseason favorite to challenge Jimmie Johnson will likely go for a more aggressive strategy on the track in taking his chances to get to victory lane. With nothing to lose and a decent package for both Texas and Homestead, two races where he’s the defending champ, don’t be surprised if Edwards puts his car in precarious situations (see: 2008 Kansas, last lap) in order to pull a repeat.

While we’re on this topic, there’s a handful of other great drivers who have failed to win a race this year: Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya (each of whom haven’t won since ’07). Pulling one off this late could help salvage seasons that, in many cases, fell well below expectations. Expect some aggressiveness by these drivers combined with interesting strategy to try and steal one before the year is out.

2. Will Kyle Busch “settle a few scores” with no titles on the line?

With a serious bout of pneumonia the past two weeks combined with trying to seal up the Nationwide Series title, Kyle Busch’s push to play spoiler in this Chase has taken a back seat. But let’s not forget last month’s quote by Denny Hamlin when asked how his teammate was expected to handle the last ten races of the season:

“I think he has some scores to settle with some guys – that I don’t think he’ll be too shy about doing now.”

Many fans passed that off as manufactured drama, especially when Busch has barely made a peep in Cup since the playoffs began in New Hampshire (one top five, no laps led in five starts).

But the second half of the Chase should prove a different story. We’re coming up on two “short” tracks in Phoenix and Martinsville this weekend where drivers can pull the payback card, all the while knowing they’re not causing serious injury or a 10-car wreck in the process. Busch is also no longer in the position of helping Hamlin win the title, with his teammate 11th in points and now only focused on victory lane the rest of the way. Add in the usual Kyle temper (if you washed his mouth out with soap every time he swore on the radio at Charlotte, you’d need about 10 bars) and we’re clearly setting up for some late-race excitement down the stretch.

3. Is Talladega primed for another gargantuan upset?

Lost in the midst of Edwards’s last lap flip at Talladega was the car that actually drove by him to victory lane. James Finch’s No. 09 car, driven by Brad Keselowski, ended a two-decade long odyssey of being a Cup Series underdog with its first ever victory on the sport’s top level. Considering the team has so little funding, it’s start-and-parked for half the races this season, it proved an incredible upset along with the first win by a single-car team since Darlington in March, 2003.

That race had more than its fair share of underdog performances, with Scott Speed (fifth), Paul Menard (13th) and Joe Nemechek (14th) among those scoring their season-best finishes in that race. All of them will be back for a second go-round along with Keselowski, each with a chance to finish up front as restrictor plates help even out the haves from the have nots. That’s why the spring race was also the last time we saw all 43 cars who qualified attempt to run the distance, a welcome change in the start-and-park era we’ll likely see again this November. Add in the potential for the big wreck that knocks Johnson back towards his closest championship challengers, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for an unpredictable race worth watching.

4. Will the Richard Petty Motorsports team switch to Ford? And if so, will that be enough of a boost to give the Blue Oval their first win since February if Edwards doesn’t pull through?

As I said yesterday, trying to find out what’s going on with the RPM-Yates merger is like trying to find a needle in a haystack blindfolded. Nobody knows what the heck is happening, with people fearful they’ll get anything from a pink slip to an order to switch shops at any moment.

So for that type of drama to surround the No. 9 team and Kasey Kahne to still pull through (with three top-10 finishes in the Chase) is nothing short of amazing. But now, things are about to get about 10 times more confusing, with the entire team rumored to be running Fords as soon as Talladega in November.

Can this organization keep things together in the face of such utter confusion? If they do, it might be the key to ending one of the biggest Blue Oval slumps in history should Edwards, Biffle or Matt Kenseth fall short over the last five races. With Ford in their worst slump since a 34-race winless streak in 1982-83 (they would match that record if they finish the season without a victory) it’s gotten to the point they’ll take any type of help they can get – and with Kahne being an intermediate specialist, he’s a talent that could pay immediate dividends for races like Texas and Homestead this November. Adding him to the roster (someone they sued for breach of contract five years ago, by the way) is a dramatic play to pull out all the stops before the season is out.

5. Will last-minute drives by those desperate for rides in 2010 be enough to get them one over Bobby Labonte?

With the type of season Labonte’s had (one top-five finish in 31 races) it’s no surprise he needed a little vacation to get away from it all. But what raises your eyebrows is the company he’s with while hunting in New Mexico this week: Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.

Considering the availability of the No. 07 car for next season, it’s not hard to put the pieces together that Labonte could be negotiating for a ride at Richard Childress Racing. But that’s not the only team after his services, as both TRG Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi (late entry) are trying to get the 2000 champ on their roster despite just six top 10s in the last three years of Cup competition.

But with only a handful of rides available and sponsorship to go around for maybe two of those cars, that means these final few races are even more critical for free agents David Stremme, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson. Making a name for themselves with a top-five finish or even an upset win is the only way they’re going to make a splash and have owners turn in their direction over the former champ. So far, Mears is the only one making a serious splash, with five straight finishes of 17th or better to push him up to 18th in points. Can the other drivers follow suit? As the season winds down, they’ll have no choice… and you know what they say about desperate drivers doing desperate things.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)