NASCAR: 5 Perennial Chase Contenders Already out of the Title Hunt
We may only be six races into this year's Sprint Cup season, but that doesn't mean it's too late to start eliminating some drivers from realistic Chase for the Sprint Cup contention.
In fact, it's not too early to start writing off some struggling drivers who typically make it into the Chase.
Sure, any one of these drivers could pull a Kasey Kahne; after sitting 31st in points at this time last year, Kahne finished seventh at Texas to begin a run of 19 top-10s in 30 races on the way to a fourth place championship finish. But the difference is that Kahne had shown plenty of competitiveness during his struggle, while most of these drivers haven't.
So which names have already put themselves out of reasonable Chase contention?
This one seems a lot more mathematically obvious than it actually is. Hamlin has a decent shot at making it into the Chase if he can continue to run to the potential he showed before the accident, leading laps and contending for victories. The No. 11 team will need to rely on wins to score a wild-card Chase berth, but it showed decent potential at Phoenix, Bristol and Fontana.
The problem is Hamlin has to get acclimated to driving the car once again when he returns—and perhaps more importantly, he has to drive without fear of taking another hard hit. The latter can be difficult for a driver coming off of an injury, especially as high-speed tracks like Michigan, Charlotte and Talladega have yet to hold either of their races yet.
Traditionally, Stewart is a late bloomer; he didn't even win a race in his 2011 championship season until the start of the Chase. But Martinsville marked the first time all season that he finished in a better position than he started—and that position was 17th.
The biggest waves Stewart made all season came after the checkered flag at Fontana, when he and Joey Logano got into a fight on pit road over Logano's aggressive driving. Stuck at 22nd in points, he hasn't done much to distinguish himself this year, and the prognosis doesn't look good.
Only 11 drivers have three or more top-10s through the first six races of the Sprint Cup season. The first 10 comprise the top 10 in points. Newman, the final driver, sits a disappointing 23rd.
Much like 2003, the season when Newman won eight races but finished sixth in the championship, DNFs have been his downfall. A 40th-place finish at Phoenix and 38th-place run at Las Vegas knocked him to 31st place in points, and a 31st place run at Martinsville, where he won his lone race last year, knocked him back to 23rd.
It looks like Newman will have to rely on victories to make the Chase, and he's only scored three of those since joining Stewart-Haas Racing.
Martin Truex Jr.
Through the first six races of the year, it appears that Truex's luck has regressed to that of his first few years at Michael Waltrip Racing, rather than the speed that took him to his second Chase berth last year. Unlike in 2012, Truex hasn't led a lap at all yet this year, and an accident-plagued Martinsville run has dropped him to 25th in points.
Truex's best hope to turn things around comes in the next two races at Texas and Kansas. Last year, he scored the pole at Texas and finishes of sixth and second, leading 242 laps between both races. The Kansas run propelled him to second in points, his best rank of the season; a repeat performance this year might barely sneak him into the top 20.
Sure, they're 14th in points right now, but don't be fooled. At this point, Harvick and Richard Childress Racing are not the dominant team that would have won a championship in 2009 had the Chase not existed. They're barely even fringe contenders, having led one lap all year so far.
Harvick's results are reminiscent of his consistent but somewhat flat performance in last year's Chase; after a crash left him 42nd in the Daytona 500, he's posted finishes of 13th, ninth, 14th, 13th and 13th in the past five races. Remember, his only win last year came at Phoenix, in the penultimate race of the Chase; unless he can find a way into the top 10 in points and fast, a single win won't do.
Whether or not Harvick or the folks at RCR want to admit it, lame duck syndrome (Harvick will leave the team to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014) already seems to be setting in.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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