9 NASCAR Drivers Who've Shown There's Still Hope for Kahne, Allmendinger

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIIMarch 20, 2012

9 NASCAR Drivers Who've Shown There's Still Hope for Kahne, Allmendinger

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    It's four races in to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and already it seems as though your driver has no shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    All that anticipation, all that waiting, all for naught.

    I know the feeling.

    If you're a Kasey Kahne fan, I feel your pain. If you're an A.J. Allmendinger fan, I hear ya. If you're a Jeff Gordon fan, I know what you're going through.

    It isn't fun.

    But just because your driver is outside the Top 20 in points and seems to have a better shot at falling out of the Top 35 than making the Chase does not mean it's time to throw in the towel and give up on your driver's 2012 season altogether.

    Far from it, in fact.

    In the nine-year history of the Chase, nine drivers have made the climb from outside the Top 20 after four races to make the Chase.

    Two of those drivers nearly won the championship.

    So if your driver is currently among the less-fortunate few who sits outside the Top 20 in the standings after four races, don't fret. Here are the nine drivers who proved that no early-season deficit is too large to overcome.

1. Jeremy Mayfield, '05

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    Before his career shattered to pieces in 2009, Jeremy Mayfield was a two-time Chaser.

    Mayfield made the inaugural Chase in 2004 after a win in the regular season finale at Richmond and followed that up with an encore performance in 2005.

    Mayfield's '05 season did not begin well. Four races into the season, Mayfield was without a Top 10 finish(something he would not achieve until the season's ninth race at Talladega), and was 21st in the standings.

    But Mayfield rebounded from his early struggles to make the Chase, not by lighting the field up, but by being consistent. Mayfield only had seven Top 10s in the first 26 races, but he finished outside the Top 30 only once in that span.

    Mayfield's win at Michigan in August didn't hurt much, either.

    The Evernham Motorsports driver would solidly qualify for the Chase and go on to finish ninth in the standings.

2. Matt Kenseth, '05

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    Believe it or not, Mr. Consistency once saw himself buried deep in the standings after four races.

    In 2005, Matt Kenseth sat 31st in the standings following race No. 4 after a blown engine at Daytona and a crash at Atlanta.

    Unlike Mayfield, it was a late-season tear that got the 2003 Sprint Cup champion into the '05 Chase.

    Kenseth would go on to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol that August, highlighting a four-race pre-Chase run that included a third, first, seventh and second, respectively.

    Kenseth would prove to be a little more of a contender in the Chase than Mayfield, notching six Top 5 finishes in the season's final ten races en route to a seventh-place points finish.

3. Kevin Harvick, '06

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    Where did he come from?

    Kevin Harvick was 23rd in the standings after the '06 season's first four events, which included a 29th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway and a 39th-place finish at Atlanta.

    But 23rd was the lowest Harvick would sit in the standings.

    Driver No. 29 made it a point to claw out of the early hole, notching four-straight Top 10 finishes in the next four races, including a win at Phoenix.

    Harvick would go on another run mid-season, earning 10-consecutive Top 15 finishes, including six Top 5s and a pair of wins, which came at Watkins Glen and in the regular season finale at Richmond.

    In the Chase, Harvick stayed close to the top of the board and even held first in the standings following his win in the Chase's opening race at New Hampshire.

    Harvick would go on to win once more, again at Phoenix in November, and finished the season fourth in points.

4. Martin Truex Jr., '07

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    Martin Truex Jr's only Chase so far in his career was not an easy one to make.

    Truex started the '07 season on a rough note, finishing 29th and 42nd in the season's first two races, respectively. The Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver was 22nd in the standings after four races, but would fall to 25th after a poor finish in the season's fifth race.

    Things started looking up for Truex in the season's 13th race at Dover, where the New Jersey native took home his first and thus far only Sprint Cup Series win.

    The victory catapulted Truex from 16th to 12th in the standings, and he never fell outside the Top 12 in points again that year. Truex solidified his spot in the Chase by finishing in the Top 15 in 10 of the final 13 races of the regular season.

    Truex would go on to struggle a bit in the Chase, but did manage a career-best 11th-place points finish in his second season.

5. Juan Pablo Montoya, '09

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    All things considered, Juan Pablo Montoya had things pretty easy in 2009.

    One of three drivers to come from outside the Top 20 after four races to make the Chase in '09, the Colombian put together the most solid season of his career thus far despite not posting a victory.

    Montoya was more about consistency than anything else in 2009, posting 11 Top 10 finishes in races No 5 through No. 26, and scoring a finish no lower than 30th during that span.

    Montoya's best stretch of races spanned from Pocono in June to Watkins Glen in August, when Montoya strung together nine-consecutive Top 12 finishes.

    Montoya would prove to be a contender early in the Chase, reaching as high as third in the standings after four Chase races before bad luck caught up to him.

    Montoya finished a career-best eighth in points in 2009.

6. Ryan Newman, '09

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    Ryan Newman's first four races with newly-formed Stewart-Haas Racing were abysmal.

    Four races into the 2009 season, Newman had finished no better than 22nd and was sitting 32nd in the standings.

    That's when things began to pick up for Rocketman.

    Newman would finish the next two races inside the Top 10, beginning a remarkable stretch of 10 races during which Newman would finish in the Top 10 eight times, and no lower than 16th.

    The streak shot Newman from 32nd all the way up to fourth in the standings. Newman would cool down after that streak, but still managed to make the Chase easily with the help of four additional Top 10s.

    Newman was unspectacular in the Chase, with the exception of his flip in the Chase race at Talladega, but still managed to finish ninth in the standings.

7. Mark Martin, '09

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    Then there was Mark Martin.

    Perhaps the most remarkable story of all nine drivers, the ageless wonder proved in 2009 that no deficit is too large to overcome.

    In his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, Martin had the No. 5 car 34th in points after four abysmal finishes, including two 40th-place efforts and a 31st-place finish.

    Sound familiar?

    Martin would go on to take the NASCAR world by storm in his first full season since 2006, earning an incredible four pre-Chase wins including the Southern 500 at Darlington and at Phoenix that April, which marked his first Sprint Cup victory since 2005.

    In addition, Martin would go on to win the first Chase race at New Hampshire and finished second in the standings to teammate Jimmie Johnson.

8. Denny Hamlin, '10

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    The runner-up in the standings would come from outside the Top 20 in points after four races two years in a row.

    While Denny Hamlin's feat was less impressive than Martin's, the 2010 runner-up still had to overcome his share of adversity early in the season, and his on-track performance in 2010 may have even been better than Martin's in '09.

    Hamlin sat 22nd in the standings after four races, and with a knee procedure inevitable in the coming weeks, things were not looking good for driver No. 11.

    But the procedure did more good than harm, and Hamlin made a remarkable run at the Chase which included six victories in the first 26 races.

    Hamlin would go on to win two more races in the Chase and even led the standings going into the season finale at Homestead, but lost the championship after spinning out early in the race.

    Hamlin would still finish second in the standings, a career best so far for the Virginia native.

9. Brad Keselowski, '11

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    Nobody saw Brad Keselowski coming in 2011.

    Perhaps that's because in the first half of the 2011 season, Keselowski was nowhere to be seen.

    B.K. sat 21st in the standings after four races, and did not even crack the Top 20 until he won the season's 21st race at Pocono.

    By that time, the NASCAR world was on notice as Keselowski immediately became a Chase contender under a new system that allowed two Wild Card drivers into the Chase.

    That is, the two drivers 11th-20th in the standings with the most wins after 26 races.

    By that time, Keselowski had two wins: Pocono and Kansas. He would go on to win the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol in August as well.

    Keselowski would earn a Wild Card berth, but would have also made the Chase under the old system as he sat 11th in the standings after 26 races.

    The driver of the Blue Deuce would string together a solid Chase, including four Top 5 finishes, and wound up fifth in the standings.