The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup is made up of 12 drivers looking to be crowned the series champion after the final race at Homestead in November. But at each of the six tracks the series will visit between now and then, there will be 31 other drivers trying to spoil the party by stealing a victory.
Realistically, of those 31, there are eight to ten drivers who have a real chance to play "Spoiler" and pick up a win. Jamie McMurray was the last non-Chaser to get a win during the Chase, and it happened last year at Talladega. Who, among this year's also-rans has a chance to take a victory out of the hands of the other 12 drivers?
Currently in 13th place, Ryan Newman has had an up and down year. Visiting Victory Lane in Phoenix in the spring, the win was Newman's first since the 2008 Daytona 500. Four DNFs and minor errors kept him out of this year's Chase, but his performance the past several weeks shows that he would have performed well had he made it.
Newman has had an average finish of 8th over the last seven races, and the No. 39 team has found a consistency that eluded them for much of the rest of the season. After Sunday's fifth place finish in California, Newman enjoys a 60 point lead over Jamie McMurray for 13th place. It would not be at all surprising to see him make another trip to the winner's circle before the end of the season. If nothing else, he seems to be building momentum to make a run at the Chase next year with Tony Stewart, his Stewart Haas teammate, and the winner of Sunday's race in California.
Likewise, Jamie McMurray seems to have found the secret to consistency the past several weeks. Starting from the front row six times this season, McMurray and Company have at least found the means to qualify well. So far in 2010, Jamie has had an average starting position of 13.3, and an average finish of 16.5.
McMurray has had a remarkable year, his first back with Chip Ganassi after his stint with Jack Rousch. Even though he did not make the Chase, he managed to win the two biggest races of the year, the season opening Daytona 500, and the Brickyard 400. It's well within the realm of possibility for the No. 1 Chevrolet to grab another win yet this year.
Throw out last week's Pepsi Max 400, and you could say that Paul Menard has been making his mark during the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Enjoying finishes of 7th and 8th at Dover and Kansas respectively, Paul appeared to be laying the groundwork to get off to a flying 2011 when he moves to Richard Childress Racing.
But the results fell off this past week at California, with a 20th place finish. Menard ran toward the front for a portion of the day, but fell to mid-pack at the end.
Menard, and teammates A.J. Allemendinger and Elliot Sadler have shown indications that Richard Petty Motorsports has discovered some speed at the tail end of the current season. There are still some ingredients missing to get them into Victory Lane, but running in the top ten is at least putting themselves into position to capitalize if the opportunity arises.
In addition to the drivers listed above, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann have all run at the front of the pack multiple times in the past few races. Engine failures, pit road mistakes and pure bad luck have taken these teams out of contention at the end of races where they have run strong.
Before the final checkered flag falls in Homestead, there is a strong possibility that a driver outside the Chase will pick up the winner's check. Newman, McMurray, Montoya and Reutimann have all found a winning formula at least once this season, so they know what it takes. Will the stars align for one of them again? Time will tell.