5 NASCAR Drivers Who Missed the 2011 Chase That Can Make the Chase This Season

Hugo Olguin@@RealHugoOlguinContributor IIIMarch 10, 2012

5 NASCAR Drivers Who Missed the 2011 Chase That Can Make the Chase This Season

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    The competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has never been tougher.  

    With smaller teams buying and renting equipment from the top-tier teams, it has expanded the roster of drivers who can win races and who can make the Chase.

    There is also the fact that there are teams shutting down, making the pool of rides shrink, and that allows the smaller teams get the chance to have talented drivers driver their equipment.

    This year's Chase could have a major shake up.  Veteran drivers who had rough years last season can easily turn it around in 2012, and drivers on the rise who can shock the top teams and take a slot in the Chase, especially the wild card slots.

    These are five drivers who were not in the Chase last year that are strong contenders to make the Chase this season.

Jeff Burton, Driver of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

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    Jeff Burton had one of the roughest seasons he's ever had in his career.

    Burton went winless in 2011 and has not won since October of 2008 when he took the checkered flag in Charlotte.

    With Burton having only two top-five and five top-10 finishes, car owner Richard Childress decided that he needed to make a change.

    Childress moved Burton's 2011 crew chief Luke Lambert to another position and hired Drew Blickensderfer from the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team.

    Blickensderfer was the crew chief of Matt Kenseth when he won the 2009 Daytona 500 and won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona with driver David Ragan last season.

    Blickensderfer can breathe some life into Burton's career.  Burton is going to need to get back into victory lane in 2012.  

    Burton has the ability to make the Chase and working with Blickensderfer and teammate Kevin Harvick.  Burton last made the Chase in 2010.  

    Burton has had mixed luck in two races in 2012.  He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 but finished 33rd after blowing a motor in Phoenix.

    Jeff Burton can turn it around this season and take a spot in the Chase as long as his car can finish races.  

    Burton needs a good 2012, he's in a make or break year.

Martin Truex Jr., Driver of the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota

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    If there is one driver who just gets so close to winning and has it slip way, that driver is Martin Truex Jr.

    Truex has had some great runs in 2011 only to have them fall apart, either with pit strategy or just plain bad luck.

    Truex did finish out the 2011 season strong with top-10 finishes in three of the last four races, including a third place finish at Homestead.

    Truex is going into the 2012 season with a real need to win.  Truex has only one career win and that came back at Dover in 2007.

    With Truex's improvement at the end of the 2011 season and a new teammate in Clint Bowyer, Truex should be able to get back into victory lane.

    Truex has crew chief Chad Johnston return for 2012 and as every race goes by, their chemistry is getting better.

    So far in 2012, Truex has stayed out of trouble with a 12th in the Daytona 500 and a seventh place finish last week in Phoenix.

    Truex is someone to look out for to take a win or two and maybe a spot in the Chase.

Greg Biffle, Driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford

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    It was shocking last season to see Greg Biffle miss the Chase.

    Biffle made the Chase from 2008 to 2010.  

    After Biffle won six races and finished second in points in 2005, many expected Biffle to be a serious championship contender.

    He just has not been able to complete a season that didn't have too many mistakes or bad luck.

    Biffle finished 16th in points in 2011 with no wins, three top-fives and 10 top-10s.  Biffle is a much better driver than what those stats present him as.

    Matt Puccia came in mid-way through the 2011 season to be Biffle's crew chief and they are still working on chemistry and dialing in their cars.

    The No. 16 car has had a good start to the 2012 season with third place finishes in the Daytona 500 and at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 last week in Phoenix.

    With this fast start, can Biffle make a run for the title? The answer is yes he can.

    Roush cars are strong cars and Biffle is capable of making a run that reminds people that Roush has another driver besides Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Driver of the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

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    It is amazing to watch someone with as much talent as Juan Pablo Montoya struggle in 2011.

    After making the Chase in 2009, Montoya has missed the Chase for two straight seasons and still does not have an oval win yet in his NASCAR career.

    There is no doubt that Montoya has talent, but his temper has been known to cost him good finishes.

    Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a real bad 2011 season and the team made changes.

    Chris Heroy was brought in from Hendrick Motorsports to be Montoya's crew chief for the 2012 season.  EGR is hoping that Heroy can bring the technical skills and success like Darian Grubb did when he went to Stewart-Haas Racing and now Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Heroy will be an upgrade to Montoya's team and give him better cars to race.  The questions are whether Montoya can keep his cool to get good finishes and win an oval race.

    Even with Montoya's bizarre accident, crashing into a jet dryer at the Daytona 500 and a 11th place finish in Phoenix, Montoya will rebound and he can get good finishes. 

    Look for Montoya's name to be in the top 10 when the Chase comes around.

Marcos Ambrose, Driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford

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    I know this is a name that a fan would not expect to hear to make the Chase, but Marcos Ambrose is someone I expect to make a real splash during the 2012 season.

    Ambrose broke through and earned his first career win in 2011 at Watkins Glen.

    Ambrose had some great runs and finished 19th in points with five top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes.

    The more experience Ambrose gets, the better he gets.  Ambrose took a big risk last year when he left JTG/Daugherty Racing to join Richard Petty Motorsports when RPM didn't have a secure future. 

    His risk paid off.  He got his first win and he's in better quality cars.  

    While many people know Marcos Ambrose as one of the best road-course drivers, people need to realize that he can drive ovals and he makes good runs.

    Ambrose had a strong Speedweek in 2012 with third place finishes in the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel race.  The No. 9 finished 13th in the Daytona 500, running in the top 10 for most of the race.

    Last week, Ambrose was running in third place in Phoenix and his motor blew with 17 laps to go.

    As long as Ambrose's equipment holds up, Ambrose will get his first oval win in 2012.  

    I expect to see Ambrose in the Chase in at least a wild-card slot.  He could have three wins going into the Chase if he sweeps the road-course races and gets an oval win.  That is not as crazy as it may sound.

    Look for Marcos Ambrose to shock the NASCAR world when he takes a spot in the Chase.