NASCAR Sprint Cup at Las Vegas: 5 Drivers Who Must Get in the Game

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup at Las Vegas: 5 Drivers Who Must Get in the Game

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    The time for excuses is over as we head to the third race of the season for NASCAR's top series. And for those drivers languishing from the middle of the standings back, it is go-time.

    Sure, it may seem early to make such a statement with 24 races until the 10-week run for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

    With few exceptions, those who get behind early on in the season seem to steep in a range that will end in disappointment unless they begin clicking off wins like Brad Keselowski did in 2011.

    It is easy to toss out the Daytona 500 because of accidents and other weird happenings that can leave a driver deep in the points abyss.

    Once the Cup drivers head to the second race of the season, it becomes apparent who may be the strongest players in the game.

    There are five drivers who really need to amp up their performance, gain considerable points, and show that they are going to be contenders this season.

    The Kobalt Tools 400 will reveal just how strong these drivers really might be in 2012.

1. Kasey Kahne

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    Expectations are riding high on Kasey Kahne, the newest addition to the Hendrick Motorsports stable.

    The driver of the Farmers Insurance No. 5 Chevrolet currently sits 32nd in the points, having dropped six slots after Phoenix.

    Kahne and his highly-respected crew chief, Kenny Francis, will no doubt get a win or two, but it is imperative that this driver gets a top-10 finish at Las Vegas.

    He needs to show he can run with the big dogs now that he has a classy new ride. Kahne has the stability and resources that he did not have in the past.

    It is time for Kahne to start running in the lead pack consistently and he should be a ringer for the Chase.

2. A.J. Allmendinger

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    The personable A.J. Allmendinger just got the ride of his dreams with Penske Racing in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge formerly driven by Kurt Busch.

    Allmendinger is currently 25th in the point standings, having made a jump of six positions after Phoenix.

    This is a driver who came from the open-wheel series and has been trying to establish himself in NASCAR, but he has had turbulent tenures with his teams.

    Now Allmendinger has a strong, stable team and more resources than he ever imagined. He must continue to improve his stats and contend for wins this season.

    This is his time to find consistency, bond with his crew chief, and prove to his boss that he is worthy of the ride he has been afforded.

3. Jamie McMurray

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    Jamie McMurray struggled through the 2011 season, as did his teammate Juan Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Major changes were made with personnel during the winter at EGR.

    McMurray hasn't been able to catch a break with the crash in the Daytona 500 and a blown engine at Phoenix.

    His average finish at Las Vegas is 19.9 and he currently sits 36th in points.

    It is time for McMurray to prove the changes over the winter were effective, and he needs to get his No. 1 McDonalds/Bass Pro Shops Chevy back in the game.

    Hopefully the demons are out of the way and EGR will give him a car to contend with.

4. Marcos Ambrose

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    Marcos Ambrose finished just outside the top 10 in the Daytona 500, but engine failure took the driver of the No. 9 Dewalt Ford out of the show at Phoenix.

    Ambrose is looking as good as he ever has this season with some strong runs at the front of the pack. He really wants to win on an oval track and looks capable of doing it.

    He got knocked back eight slots to 21st in the point standings at Phoenix. It is important for him to find his groove at Las Vegas and regain momentum.

    After Phoenix, he can't afford to fall too much deeper in the points without having to win races for a wild-card slot. This is the year he can prove himself as more than a road-course driver in NASCAR.

5. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, is just out to have fun this season with the single-car team that has limited equipment with Hendrick Motorsports horsepower and chassis.

    His average finish at his hometown track is not all that good at 20.7, and that was with stout teams.

    Busch may be in protective mode at LVMS with his equipment, and he understands that intermediate tracks may be the toughest for him with this team.

    His strong runs should be on shorter tracks and superspeedways, but he still needs to keep his car at least in the top 20 so he doesn't fall any further than his 26th place slot in the points.

    Busch is looking forward to running at Bristol, but he will have to keep his intermediate track car out of trouble, yet somewhat competitive in the Kobalt Tools 400.