Many Big Name Drivers Need To Step It Up Heading into and Out of Atlanta

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IMarch 3, 2010

HAMPTON, GA - SEPTEMBER 06:  Fans watch race action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 6, 2009 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Just for fun, you’ll hear broadcasters say during a race, “If the Chase started today...” before going into which drivers would be locked in and which drivers would be locked out. Normally that happens during the final few weeks that led to the 12 men, 10 race, Chase for the Sprint Cup.

It becomes all they can ever talk about as each spot becomes harder and harder to earn.

After the first three races of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season, many teams don’t want to play that game.

Heading into Atlanta this weekend there are many big name drivers and teams that are on the outside looking in when it comes to the all-important race to the Chase. Sure, it’s early yet and it’s by no means any indication of who may and may not miss this year's Chase; however, it’s a strong indication of which teams have their work cut out for them over the next few months.

While Atlanta will be just another race for some, and another chance for Jimmie Johnson to annoy race fans, it’ll be the final race before the series takes their first off weekend of the season. That means that results from Atlanta are going to hang with a team for two weeks before they get back on track in Bristol at the end of the month.

Two weeks to think about how much work needs to be done and how much needs to be changed. Two weeks to dwell on how poorly things have started out.

Or Atlanta could be a chance for teams to step up and gain the much-needed momentum that will send them into the off week with an extra bounce in their step. But no matter what, Atlanta will be a pressure cooker and just as intense as ever.

The Kobalt Tools 500 on Sunday will go green with two Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the top five in points. Mark Martin leads the charge by sitting third and Jimmie Johnson, who has won two of the seasons first three races, sits fifth.

He’s chasing a fifth Sprint Cup title in a row and will try to beat boss and teammate Jeff Gordon to number five as well.

Gordon sits outside the top 12 in the 13th position, just two points out, after dominating the Shelby American GT 350 only to lose to Johnson. Gordon is very optimistic about his No. 24 team this year and even after losing on Sunday said that he feels they have all the pieces in place to be a contender this year.

“We’re just starting to tap into it,” he said.

Tapping into it is what fellow teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet team has been trying to do. A year ago, they sat 29th in points after a pit mistake filled Daytona 500, a blown engine in California, and a mediocre run in Las Vegas.

One year, new crew chief and changes later, the team has the 88 team sitting 15th in the points, 18 points out of the Chase that they missed last year. During Sunday’s race in Las Vegas, while they didn’t get the finished they had hoped for, Earnhardt Jr. praised his team and about the difference he has already seen from last season.

Atlanta is another race for them to continue to get better.

Sitting in-between the two Hendrick drivers is the Daytona 500 winner, Jamie McMurray. In his first season with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, McMurray won the biggest race of the year and looked to end the jinx of drivers that have won the Great American Race and not had a great season.

It looked like he was going in the right direction when he won the pole the following week in California. He finished 17th in the Auto Club 500 and then headed to Vegas where he was involved in a wreck with his teammate.

Those events have him now outside the top 12 in 14th and if he can gain 12 points this weekend he’ll be right back into it.

In it right now has to be the surprise driver thus far in 2010. Scott Speed announced his presence by staying out and leading the Daytona 500 late in the going then came back a week later and did the same thing in California, as well as Las Vegas.

Even though he’s had to qualify his way into each race after finishing outside the top 35 in owner points last year, the California native is 16th in points right now, only 27 markers from a spot in the Chase. Whether or not he’s still there come September, Speed has everyone’s attention and right now is riding a wave of momentum into Georgia.

Paul Menard is another surprise, he sits 17th in points, 30 out of the top 12, he’s now apart of the Roush-Fenway organization and is enjoying his new ride and new horsepower early this season. Behind Menard sits Brian Vickers, 55 points out of 12th, Vickers was the Cinderella story of 2009 after a late season charge that included a win, and making the Chase.

Looks like he’ll have to do the same thing again.

Biting at Vickers’ heels come the surprising, in the sense of who they are, drivers as far back in points as they are. Names like Kurt Busch, 19th in points, Denny Hamlin the preseason favorite sits 22nd and Kasey Kahne is 23rd in points.

Those drivers were all Chase contenders last year, Hamlin seemingly the only one that could contend with Johnson for the title had he not had so many mechanical failures. The good news for Busch, Kahne, and Hamlin is that they are all less than 100 points of the 12th place driver, Kyle Busch.

The maximum points a driver can gain in one race in 195 if they lead the most laps and win the race. Something they’ll all be looking to do this weekend at Atlanta.

But the stars don’t stop there.

After taking the NASCAR circuit by storm in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya now knows what it’s like to contend for a championship and he wants to do it again. The only problem is that he’s sitting 27th in points, 127 markers out of 12th after the Las Vegas wreck.

After he climbed from his mangled machine one of the first things Montoya stated was that it didn’t help his Chase chances, clearly already in the point racing kind of mind. Time to get back on track in Atlanta for the Target team.

Off target is the only way to describe how Ryan Newman’s season has started off. Newman made the Chase in 2009 with boss Tony Stewart, but his Stewart-Haas team is in trouble right now. He’s currently 32nd in points, 150 behind the top 12.

Not only is it troubling for his Chase chances, but if Newman continues to have trouble of the race track the next two weeks, when he arrives at Martinsville he’ll have to qualify his No. 39 Chevrolet on speed since he could potentially fall out of the top 35 in owners points.

The season may only be three races old but it’s already full of drama. While there is still 23 races before we start the Chase and we know who will compete for this years championship, it’s never too early to watch the points and which driver is where.

Any one of these big names can come roaring back over the next few months, but if you listen to Darrell Waltrip he believes that any driver that is in the top 12 in points after the first five races of the season will be the drivers in the Chase.

That makes Atlanta not only important in a championship stance, but Atlanta could make the off weekend miserable and unwanted for all these drivers.