Panic Button: Greg Biffle Among Drivers in Early Season Hole

Brian PolkingContributor IIMarch 12, 2011

Panic Button: Greg Biffle Among Drivers in Early Season Hole

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    McMurray surveys his damaged car.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    There are still 23 races left in the 2011 Sprint Cup regular season, but thanks to NASCAR’s new point system, a few big names already find themselves in big holes after just three races.

    Under the old point system, a driver who finished last received roughly 18 percent of the points that the race winner received. Under the 2011 point format, the last-place finisher receives just four percent.

    In other words, a bad finish is about four-and-a-half times as harmful this season as in years past.

    With a premium being placed on avoiding bad finishes, even a few poor runs can put a driver’s Chase chances in serious jeopardy. Here is a look at some of those drivers.

Kevin Harvick

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    Harvick already has as many DNFs in 2011 as he did in 2010.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    He sits 20th in the standings after the first three races. At 42 points back of the leader, he is essentially a full race behind already. After nearly winning the title last season, Harvick has the talent to make up the deficit, but there is some cause for concern.

    He went the entire 2010 season without finishing outside the top 40. He did just that in the 2011 season opener. Harvick had just four finishes outside the top 15 last season, and he already has two in the first three races of this season.

    Everything went his way in 2010 as he caught every lucky break imaginable. These things have a way of balancing out, which could mean some more bad breaks for Harvick along the way. If that’s the case, returning to the Chase isn’t a guarantee.

Greg Biffle

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    Biffle has had nothing but bad luck in 2011.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Three straight finishes of 20th or worse to open the year has Biffle 32nd in the standings. He is 63 points out of the top spot, making him the furthest back of any real Chase contender. The only silver lining is that he is one of the few drivers capable of overcoming such a big gap.

    He has finished seventh or higher in the standings in each of the last three seasons, and he has had at least 16 top 10s in each of those seasons and at least nine top-five finishes. Not to mention the fact that Biffle hasn’t finished outside the top 15 in a year since 2004.

    Even if he isn’t able to race his way back into the top 10, Biffle has a solid chance at grabbing one of the two wild-card spots in the Chase given to the drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins. In eight years as a full-time driver, Biffle has won at least one race seven times and he has won multiple races five times.

Joey Logano

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    Logano has a 26.3 average finish in 2011.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Logano managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump in 2010, but it looks like he is falling victim to the junior jinx in 2011. Three races into the season, he is sitting 30th in the standings and he has yet to finish higher than 23rd.

    Engine issues and wrecks have played a factor, but even without the unexpected problems, there were already serious questions about whether or not he could make the Chase. Even though his 16 top 10s in 2010 were the most of any non-Chaser, he has never finished higher than 16th in the standings.

    He is expected to improve on those numbers this season, but it’s not like he has shown the ability to run like an elite driver in the past. Logano can’t just be pretty good the rest of the way to make up for lost time. He has to be great. He has 10 career top-five finishes in his first two seasons, and he will probably have to double that total by the end of the year to have a chance at the Chase.

Jamie McMurray

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    McMurray is spending a lot of time in the garage in 2011.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    After his three-win campaign in 2010, McMurray was on the short list of drivers expected to make the Chase for the first time this season. Well, three straight finishes of 18th or worse to start the year have his playoff hopes fading fast.

    In order to rally from his current 28th-place standing, he will have to do something he has never been able to do – run consistently in the top-10. For all his great runs last year, he finished in the top-10 in back-to-back races only once. Wins are nice, but consistent finishes near the front are the only way to overcome such an early hole.

    McMurray may still end up winning some races, but he will have to run better than he ever has in the past to make the Chase in 2011. For a guy that has had more than 15 top-10s in a season only once, the playoffs seem like a longshot.

Jeff Burton

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    Burton has been struggling since the end of the 2010 season.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    The signs of a collapse were already obvious at the end of 2010. Even though he made the playoffs, he finished outside the top-15 in seven of the 10 Chase races. Burton hasn’t finished in the top-20 yet in 2011, and he currently sits 31st in points.

    Burton has been a championship-caliber driver at times in his career, and even in recent years, he has been a solid top-10 threat. However, he isn’t getting any younger and isn’t getting any better. He managed at least 18 top-10s from 2006 to 2008, but he had just 10 in 2009 and just 15 last season.

    The point is that Burton is on the decline, and the chances of him making the Chase were already slim. The chances of him making the Chase after such a slow start are even worse.