To say things are a bit crowded around the 12th and final Chase spot is like saying you might bump into somebody in Beijing on a bicycle. The fight to get into the final transfer spot come Richmond in September is setting up to be an epic bloodbath, the likes of which will make the Spartan saga 300 look like a sorority girl pillow fight.
A quick glance of the standings will tell the story; 17th to 11th are separated by 148 points. Factoring in a 100-point swing that drivers in these positions could reasonably expect to experience (that being the difference between finishing fifth and 36th), and you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to recognize that there is both ample opportunity and peril awaiting these seven drivers in their quest to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.
11th Place: Mark Martin
+30 points from 12th
Martin has to think that somebody is sending him through some cruel Stargate time warp. The season that started off with a Daytona 500 pole and cars that picked up where 2009’s left off has steadily backslid into a series of sluggish runs that are reminiscent of the lean years that served as the catalyst for Martin to make racing a part-time gig. There are a number of contributing factors cited to this season’s slowdown: a switch to the spoiler from the wing, other teams catching up, as well as the “Marshall Plan” recovery effort by Hendrick Motorsports to get the No. 88 up to speed, which pulled key personnel from the No. 5 car.
Alan Gustafson has provided more comfortable cars for Martin this year, but not the kind that showed the tail lights to the field for the better part of last season. The No. 5 team was but 263 points out of first after a fourth-place effort at Charlotte, but finishes of 29th, 16th, 14th and 21st have them clinging to 11th, just 30 markers in front of 13th. There are three tracks Martin has yet to win at, and Daytona is one of them; scratching that off the list would go a long way to improve his Chase chances.
12th Place: Carl Edwards
+3 points from 13th
Many of the preseason predictions surrounded Edwards and the No. 99 team, hyping them as one of the prime candidates to get Ford back to relevancy in the Sprint Cup Series. 17 races into the 2010 season, it appears that the No. 99 team has regressed – courtesy of convoluted simulation and data-mining programs that have conspired to throw the Roush Fenway teams for a Brad Keselowski-esque loop. A lone top five and six top 10s have him barely clinging to his Chase life entering Daytona, though the plate tracks are a bit of an equalizer, a track where Roush Fords run well and win routinely.
At this point last year, Edwards was fifth in the standings, having scored 137 more points than 2010. Even with the much-ballyhooed FR9 engine, Edwards is still typically driving a 12th-15th place machine, which has him in the ugly predicament that he currently finds himself in. Edwards is over 100 points behind his teammate, Greg Biffle, in eighth, and is only 100 points out of 17th just two years removed from finishing runner-up in the standings to Jimmie Johnson.
I guess if there is one guy you’d want walking a tightrope over the abyss, it would be Edwards, who is about as unflappable as they come.
13th Place: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-3 Points from 12th
Much to the chagrin of many who love to pile on and kick a guy when he’s down, take his lunch money and fart on his head, there are an equal number of those who believe that maybe – just maybe – Lance McGrew and Junior finally have the No. 88 turned around and headed in the right direction.
The bickering on the radio has quieted a bit, post-pit-stop plummeting through the field has halted, and the driver is no longer parking the car behind pit wall for steering repairs that were not needed. Two of the last three finishes have been top 10s – with the other being an 11th at Infineon Raceway, a race that with nostalgia running amok at the box office this summer could have served as footage for the inevitable Mad Max remake.
Earnhardt’s history at Daytona is well-known, both celebrated and lamented. He’ll be piloting his father’s old Wrangler colors this weekend in the Nationwide Series, which could serve as a momentum maker heading into Saturday night. An improbable late-race restart charge in the Daytona 500 saw Junior come just a hair short from a shot at winning; a breakthrough victory this weekend would be a shot in the arm for making the Chase, relieving pressure that has been building since his last win at Michigan over two years ago.
14th Place: Ryan Newman
-15 points from 12th
Probably one of the few times you’ve seen Newman this year is in that new Gillette “Mullet Nation” commercial, where he’s in the midst of a mani-pedi. His 14th position in the points standings is not so much from poor performance, but three DNFs and middling finishes that have seen him and the Tony Gibson-led No. 39 bunch on the cusp of the top 10 often. While team owner Tony Stewart has been carrying the torch for SHR, Newman has been the anchor, scoring an improbable victory thanks to a green-white-checkered restart in Phoenix back in April.
Admittedly, before the season started, I had no idea what a Tornado was – besides the ones that went past my parents’ street last Tuesday at 1:30 a.m. Then again, I also didn’t know that the population of Mullet Nation was “Us.” Newman will need to exorcise his Daytona demons and restrictor-plate aerobatics, conjuring up the good juju that saw him win the Daytona 500 just two seasons ago.
15th Place: Clint Bowyer
-16 points from 12th
Wait, doesn’t he run up front like every week? You’d think with nine top 10s in 18 races, the No. 33 team would be solidly in Chase contention. While teammate Jeff Burton might lead the series in the “Wins Snatched Away in the Final Five Laps for 2010” category, the Bowyer byline has been a series of solid runs undone in the standings by four finishes of 30th or worse.
A potential top 10 at Infineon was erased when he drew the Wonka ticket in the Jeff Gordon Wreck ‘Em Lottery. Bowyer led 37 laps in the Daytona 500 this February, and was up front with two laps to go when a flurry of yellows contributed to green-white-checkered hysteria that saw the race go 20 miles longer than the advertised distance. And a front row start at Pocono saw him lead a good portion of the first half of the race, only to fade to a ninth-place finish.
Can he get over the hump on Saturday night? RCR Chevrolets never want for speed at Daytona, and Bowyer was that close to closing the deal in February. If he has any hopes of scoring a third Chase appearance in four years, Shane Wilson and the No. 33 team need to produce a convincing performance. A win would work wonders, but they must guard against beating themselves. Blown engines, flat-spotting tires getting onto pit road, or getting caught up in the Big One could be the undoing of their season.
16th Place: Joey Logano
-99 points from 12th
While he has struggled at times to live up to the lofty expectations many had set for him by way of his reputation – and his instant success in the Nationwide Series – it appears that halfway through his sophomore season, Logano has added consistency and resolve to his resume. In the last six races, he has three top 10s and a pair of 13th-place efforts (one of which was a top five at Pocono until Kevin Harvick snagged it to bounce him), offsetting what a downright ugly day in Infineon, where he was perpetually bouncing off curbs and cars, even calling Juan Pablo Montoya “a dick.” Looks like our little Joey’s all growed up!
But between trading verbal barbs with Harvick, defending his father and taking a stand in the public press, Logano and the No. 20 Home Depot group are just a little bit short on the speed that would see him up front with JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. He’s less than 100 points out of 12th, and has nine weeks to find it.
17th Place: Jamie McMurray
-121 points from 12th
During the week while glancing at the points standings, I am still shocked to see McMurray this far down. You can forgive my short-sightedness; after all, this man was the feel-good story of 2010 back in February. McMurray, returning to the team that gave him his first shot, repaid them handsomely by winning in only his second Cup start at Charlotte in 2002. While turnabout is fair play, one good turn deserves another, with McMurray coming through in the clutch and winning the the Great American Race to help give Chip Ganassi the first bookend of his two big trophies in 2010.
He also nearly won Talladega, getting nipped at the line by Harvick by an imperceptible .011 seconds, and came just one spot short of winning the Southern 500 at Darlington from the pole. How in the world could he still be this far removed from Chase contention? Five finishes of 30th or worse have contributed to the one-step-forward/two-steps-back scenario the No. 1 team finds themselves trying to overcome.
McMurray has developed into quite the restrictor-plate racer in recent years, having won at Daytona in 2007 and 2010, as well as Talladega in ’09. At 139 points removed from the 12th and final transfer spot, McMurray and the No. 1 team are still very much a part of the discussion. That is a deficit that can realistically be made up in one race, and if you consider this man’s plate-race prowess, coupled with the number of cars that can be wiped out in a last lap track-blocker here, he just might make those points up this weekend.
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With the gap that exists between 11th and 17th amounting to but a scant 148 points, and the inherent unpredictability that has come to define restrictor-plate races, there may be some additional names that we mention for Chase contention following this Saturday’s Pepsi 400.
And while Daytona will wait for the race to conclude before firing off the fireworks, some of the most explosive action may be confined to the track. Considering how heated things have gotten in recent weeks, and the pressure drivers and teams are feeling to get into the top 12, I wouldn’t be surprised if it extended to the garage area afterwards.