What To Watch for: Sprint to the Chase

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What To Watch for: Sprint to the Chase
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

In typical fashion on Thursday mornings, I take a look at what fans should watch for in the upcoming weekend.

Being as this weekend is Easter weekend, I don't think we'll see anything more than some Cup regulars dying and hunting Easter eggs with their loved ones.

So instead, I opted to take a look at What to Watch For as we head into the Sprint for Chase contention.

 

In or out? Bottom line: Only 12 make the field

As we enter the Cup Series' second weekend off, some of the big names in the sport have began creeping their way back into contention for a Chase spot.

This past weekend, Jeff Burton and the No. 31 Richard Childress Chevy finished ninth and moved themselves into the top 12 for the first time this season.

Burton has one top five and three top-10 finishes this season and hopes to continue his success he's had at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend.

At the short-track, Burton has two wins, five top-fives, and 11 top-10 finishes in 19 starts.

However, Burton's seat inside the Chase field is anything but comfy. Only 67 points separate positions 12th through 16th, and there are some big names on Burton's bumper.

Juan Pablo Montoya and his No. 42 Chevy of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing sits 13th in the standings—only 16 points behind Burton.

Montoya has two top-10 finishes this season, and captured his third consecutive top-15 finish at Texas this past Sunday.

In four starts at PIR, Montoy'as best finish came last season in the Subway Fresh Fit 500, where he placed 15th.

Kevin Harvick trails his RCR teammate by only 39 points, and sits 14th in points.

Harvick has two top-fives, three top-10 finishes, and one DNF in 2009.

PIR is a track Harvick is "Happy" to visit. He swept the track in 2006 and has three top-fives and six top-10 finishes in 12 starts (50 percent).

Greg Biffle lurks just behind Harvick in his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. The "Biff" is only 60 points out of Chase contention after a third-place fun at Texas moved him up nine spots in the standings.

Biffle has two top-fives, three top-10 finishes and two DNF's thus far in 2009 and has made 10 starts at PIR. At the short-track he has two top-fives and three top-10 finishes.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy sits 16th in points, only 67 points behind Burton.

Earnhardt has only two top-10 finishes in 2009 and one DNF.

Junior Nation can be excited about PIR, however, as Earnhardt has won there twice, as well as posted four top-fives and seven top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

As for this weekend, Earnhardt said, "I'm going to go to Whiskey River and I'm going to go on vacation during Easter and take it easy, man."

 

Four-peat for the No. 48 team?

At the beginning of the season, Jimmie Johnson and the Lowe's Chevy team were surprised they weren't the favorites.

Early in the season—again—it looked like the team was struggling.

Then came Martinsville, and the No. 48 visited Victory Lane, followed by a runner-up finish at Texas, and Johnson now sits second in points.

The three-time defending champions are at it again and are busy proving critics wrong who said: you can't do four in a row.

In the past eight seasons together, the duo of Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus have been more than impressive.

The past three years, however, the team has simply been dominant, posting three consecutive championships, 22 wins (eight of which were Chase races), 48 top-fives, and 70 top-10 finishes.

Last year, Knaus became the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships.

In 2009, Johnson has one win, three top-fives, and five top-10 finishes.

PIR is a track that Johnson has run well at as well. The No. 48 team has won the last three races at the track, and Johnson leads all other drivers with wins at the track.

If Johnson wins next Saturday night at PIR, he would become the only active driver to win four consecutive races at two different tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. (No surprise, Lowes Motor Speedway is the other track.)

Bubble Watch: Top 35 race could get interesting

More so than not, the top 35 race becomes more interesting to watch in the closing races leading up to the beginning of the Chase then the actual Chase cut off.

This year looks to be no different.

Joe Gibbs Racings' 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano currently sits 35th in owners points, 21-points behind Robby Gordon's No. 7 team.

It's been a tough learning curve for the rookie, and my guess is that he will only improve (slightly) as the Cup Series begins to visit tracks for a second time this summer.

But, with a best finish of 13th at Las Vegas, can "Sliced-Bread" (who, by the way is looking more and more stale with each passing weekend), maintain a top 35 spot until he can find his groove?

Logano really only has two challengers for the golden spot: David Gilliland and the No. 71 Chevy (23 points behind Logano) and Scott Speed and the No. 82 Team Red Bull Toyota (96 points behind Logano).

The other driver, Aric Almirola and the No. 8 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevy, has reportedly been shut down due to lack of sponsorship.

Speed missed the race at Texas, and the No. 82 has struggled to make races in the past, so he may end up not being much of a challenger for the spot.

Either way, I can see Gilliland and Logano (go ahead and throw in Robby Gordon, John Andretti, Paul Menard and Sam Hornish Jr. as well) battling out for that spot up until the end of the season.

 

David Reutimann is poised to fill underdog role

Nobody—and I mean NOBODY—expected Reutimann and the No. 99 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota to be 11th in the series standings at this point in the season.

Sure, he started the season strong with a few good runs, but most figured the young Michael Waltrip Racing protege would drop off the map as the season progressed.

Reutimann won the pole last weekend in Texas, and is only six points behind 10th-place Kasey Kahne and 309 behind points leader Gordon.

To say the 2009 season has been the best start of Reutimann's four-year NASCAR career would be a huge understatement.

He has one top-five and one pole in seven races, but averages a finish of 15th.

 

Enjoy your Easter weekend and be sure to catch the Nationwide Series 300 at Nashville Superspeedway at 3 PM on Saturday.

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