NASCAR: Goers and Gotta Goers, Going into Fontana

Brandon CaldwellCorrespondent IMarch 22, 2011

NASCAR: Goers and Gotta Goers, Going into Fontana

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    Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been going, and Jeff Burton's gotta go!John Harrelson/Getty Images

    This is a list of 10 drivers. The first five are drivers who have been on a hot start, and need to keep it going in California.

    I will tell you how previous years compare to 2011, what they did at California in 2010, and what they need to do at Fontana to keep the momentum going into Martinsville, and the rest of 2011.

    The last group of five are drivers who are off to slow starts. These are the "gotta goers."

    I will tell you what each of these five drivers need to do to turn there miserable 2011 seasons into a chase run. Usually by the fifth race of the season, the good drivers start to show their faces. I will also mention whether or not these drivers can in fact turn in around in 2011.

    Let's have a look at my first driver...

Goer: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. No. 88 AMP/National Guard Chevrolet

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    Dale Earnhardt, Jr. before an 11th place finish at BristolJason Smith/Getty Images

    If you are part of Junior Nation, the racing season must feel so good to you right now. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is sitting fifth in the points. He and Steve Latarte seem to be clicking on all cylinders so far in 2011.

    Jr.'s worst finish so far this season was a 24th place finish at Daytona. Very good, for a guy who struggled to get a top-25 at the end of last season.

    But can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. keep this hot streak going? 

    At this time last year, after the fourth race of the season, headed into Bristol, Jr. was 13th in points, and ninth after his seventh place run at Bristol. By the time the clock struck for the final time, Dale, Jr. ended up 21st in points.

    So how does the legend's son do in California anyway? He's never won here in 18 starts, with only four top-10 finishes. NONE of which have come with Hendrick Motorsports.

    I adjust everyone's average finish by taking away their worst one. So subtracting Dale's worst finish at Auto Club Speedway, Dale's average finish is 21st.  In this race in 2010, he ended up a miserable 32nd.

    Dale may have finally found the crew chief he was looking for, but he will definitely need to finish in the top-15 at Fontana to keep the momentum rolling. If he doesn't and then gets caught up in an accident at Martinsville, this hot start can be forgotten about real quickly, like it was in 2010.  

Goer: Paul Menard, No. 27 Menard's Chevrolet

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    Paul Menard is off to another hot start in 2011.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Paul Menard has really turned heads so far in his first season at Richard Childress Racing. He is the highest RCR car in the points, and is on fire headed into Fontana.

    But remember this time last year, headed into Bristol? Paul was ninth in the point standing and off to a hot start as well.

    Granted, his situation at Richard Petty Motorsports was a heck of a lot different than it is here now. By the time 2010 ended, RPM almost didn't have the money to field Menard's fully funded team.

    That could have been the reason for the guys drastic fall to 23rd at season's end.

    But I think once his competition picks up, he will be mediocre at best.

    I expect Paul Menard to run better than he did in 2010, but not this much better. Around 19th in points would be reasonable for him.

    His computed average finish in eight races (nine total) at California is 25th. He's another one, if he doesn't run well here, and wrecks at Martinsville, I don't know if Paul Menard can run well enough to pick up his first chase appearance.

    I hope this guy proves me wrong, but I've been watching this sport my whole life, and I've seen this movie before, Paul will not make the chase, and his good runs will slowly diminish by season's end.

Goer: Martin Truex, Jr. No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota

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    Martin Truex, Jr. and his NAPA team "knows how" they are tenth in points so far.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Michael Waltrip's truck win at Daytona hasn't been his only upside so far in 2011.

    Martin Truex, Jr. in his second year at the helm of the NAPA Toyota has been nothing but solid so far.

    I believe this could be Martin's year. Now, I might be a little biased, being a fellow Jersey boy and all, but I like what I'm seeing so far from Truex, even though my next stat is going to disprove me.

    After four races in 2010, Daytona, Fontana, Vegas and Atlanta, Martin Truex, Jr. was 24th in the series point standings. However, 2011's first four races were Daytona, Phoenix, Vegas and Bristol. In 2010, Truex's average finish in the first for races of this year, Daytona, Phoenix, Vegas, and Bristol, is 13.75. In 2011, after those four races in a row his average finish is 14th.

    So if you put the 2010 schedule like the 2011 schedule, Martin Truex, Jr. has pretty much stayed the same.

    But I also feel that everyone has that one year. MWR as a whole seems better. With a veteran teammate in Bobby Labonte inputting his 17 years of experience, it will make MWR better.

    I think Truex is going to contend for the chase. He may not win a race nor make the chase, but he may stay solidly in the top-15 all year.

    His computed average finish at California is 19th. Add that to his 39th from this race last year, and you will have a better start. With the momentum this team is on, and California being the home track for Toyota, I expect Truex to run in the top-10 all day long, and end up there when the checkered flag drops.

Goer: Kasey Kahne. No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota

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    Kasey Kahne, fresh off his truck series win at Darlington, stands outside of his car before the race in Bristol, Sunday.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    I'll admit it. So far Kasey Kahne has proved me wrong.

    I thought that this year would be a throw away year for Kahne. After his unpopular departure from Richard Petty Motorsports, I think a lot of people had a sour taste in their mouth about Kahne.

    But he's quieted the critics quickly with a really hot start.

    After four races in 2010, Kahne was 17th in points. But, at his first races at Daytona, Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol and California, he had one top-10 in 2010, and that was at Vegas. The other four races were 30th or worse.

    Now again. Richard Petty Motorsports was in demise in 2010. Kasey did a terrific job with what he had.

    But I don't think anyone expect this from Scott Speed's old car. He is 12th in points, being brought down by a 25th place finish at Daytona.

    I now expect Kasey Kahne to make this chase. He's had a computed average finish of 13th at Fontana, and with the way the Red Bull teams have ran here in the past, expect him to contend for the victory this week. He's won here before, and I think Kasey will ride his momentum, on a bull, right into victory lane.

Goer, and Gotta Goer: Dave Blaney, No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet

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    Dave Blaney before a top-25 finish at Bristol.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    For me, the feel good story of the 2011 season has been the Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 36 team driven by Dave Blaney.

    Blaney has shown that the two years of starting and parking have not slowed down the 47 year old former World of Outlaws Series champion.

    I'm very high on Blaney, but why write about them? I don't know if anyone besides me has noticed, but this team is just one point out of the top-35. They trail Casey Mears' No. 13 team.

    Blaney's computed average finish, minus his start and parks, at California, which equals 12 races is 27th. Solid. I believe that if he and Baldwin can get that car in the top-28, I think they will be in on points at Martinsville.

    If they can run well at Martinsville, and finish in the top-30 again, I think this team will be set. They can start-and-park at Texas, being in one time. They can start-and-park until it is no longer safe, and then run to get back into the top-35. Much like the No. 71 team did last year.

    If Blaney can keep this hot streak going, TBR may be set up for some sponsorship, and I would love to see what this team can do once they get enough funding. The driver is good enough to make something happen, now they need the money.

    But at California, they're going to need help. With 43 cars on the entry list, no one will fail to qualify. So they're going to have to beat Casey Mears by at least two positions. It can be done, but it's going to be tough to beat a car, when your quarter panels are blank, and his have GEICO on them.

Gotta Go: Jeff Burton, No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet

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    A dissatisfied Jeff Burton at BristolJared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Jeff Burton actually skipped the last practice at Bristol this past weekend because he was so happy with his race car. But again, lady luck dealt the veteran a very bad hand.

    A blown engine in the Daytona 500 has me nervous for California. The next big test for the ECR engine. 

    But I think the engine troubles are behind this team. They've been good, but need to do one thing...

    Qualify better. Jeff, you know better than I do, starting in the back will only lead to trouble. The RCR cars, with the exception of Menard, have not qualified well, and that can be a recipe for disaster.

    Jeff needs to qualify better. His best finish of the short 2011 was last week at Bristol, and it was 20th.

    This team came out to Fontana last year and dominated, RCR as a whole did. Burton finished third. His performance hasn't been bad, but his results have been. He sits 29th in the points.

    I did the research, since the chase's inception in 2004, four drivers, who were worse than 29th after Atlanta (the fourth race of the season), have made the chase. Matt Kenseth was 31st in points in 2005. He followed Atlanta with a 16th place finish at Bristol, and made the 10-car chase and finished 8th.

    Carl Edwards was 30th, in 2006, and ended up finishing fourth at Bristol, and 12th in the 12-car chase.

    Ryan Newman's 2009 season got off to a slow start, and he was 32nd after Atlanta. He followed that up with a seventh at Bristol, and sailed home with a ninth-place points finish.

    And finally, remember Mark Martin's slow start in 2009. It was a lot like Burton's. A good car, good runs, but no results. Mark was 34th after Atlanta and finished 6th at Bristol. He ended up just losing to Jimmie Johnson in the championship race, after an amazing comeback.

    If there is one team back here that I believe can do it, it's Burton's. His computed average California finish is 16th. He's going to need a top-10 to come out of this thing.

    If he finishes in the top-10, and goes to his home track in Martinsville with some confidence. I would watch out for him. He dominated this Martinsville race last year, before burning the bead out in his tire.

Gotta Go: David Reutimann, No.00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota

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    Reutimann before bad luck bites him at BristolJared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Rudy has been fast this season. Just again, hasn't finished well. He was caught up in a wreck early in the Daytona 500, but his car was fast, with a duct tape side, and number on the car, he was pushing teammate Bobby Labonte back up into the top 15 in the middle part of the race.

    He's just had bad luck. He entered Bristol, the fifth race of 2010, 18th in the points. Right now, Rudy's 27th.

    But there is hope ahead. Auto Club Speeway is one of David Reutimann's best tracks. He had a horrifying crash in his first start here, that knocked him cold for a few seconds in 2007. But since MWR has righted its ship, in 2008, David Reutimann has not finished worse than 18th, which includes a 10th place finish here last fall.

    David needs a solid top-15 to stay in the mix of things. He may get a win or two before the year is out, and I know he will stay in the top-20 in points.

    One of those wild card spots is just calling his name. But he needs to avoid the bad luck that he has had.

    He's not a good road racer, so if he can just get through those two races without wrecking and the super-speedway races, I think Rudy will shock some people, and be that twelfth and final chaser. Call me crazy, but I'm calling it now!  

Gotta Go: Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet

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    Jamie Mac before a 15th place run at BristolJohn Harrelson/Getty Images

    Jamie Mac is next on this list simply because he does not have a win so far. Last year at this point, he had the Daytona 500 win, and was 19th in the points.

    This year, the Joplin, Missouri native, is 26th in points. His best finish of the short season is 15th, last weekend at Bristol.

    But Jamie did this sort of thing last year. He would string together some good runs, and then not so good, and then good again.

    Amongst all the up and downs, Jamie squeezed in three wins: The Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.

    He also had 12 top-10 finishes, but only once were they back-to-back. I said that this team was going to need to be consistent, and they're not.

    I don't know if Jamie can make the top-10, but I'm sure one of those wild card spots could be his. Him and Reutimann may be fighting for it when it comes down to the wire.

    But things are good for Mac in Cali. He sat on the pole for both races here last season, and his computed average finish is 15th on the money. He needs to finish at least there so he can make a run for victory at Texas.

Gotta Go: Clint Bowyer, No. 33 Cheerios/BB&T Chevrolet

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    Clint, before his wreck at BristolGeoff Burke/Getty Images

    Clint Bowyer has got to be one of my favorite drivers in the garage area. He's always smiling, always upbeat, and always positive about his race team.

    But he's had little to be positive about so far in 2011. It hasn't been horrible, but still disappointing none of the less.

    Clint is 24th in the points. After getting caught up in a wreck at Bristol, he finished 35th. If not for that, maybe he's not on this list.

    But still, like McMurray, no finish higher than 15th all year. Clint had a top-10 in the first race at these four tracks three times in 2010. A 4th at Daytona, a 9th at Phoenix, and an 8th at Vegas.

    He hasn't even come close to those results in 2010 so far. But Clint Bowyer OWNS Auto Club Speedway.

    His computed average finish there is 10th. He finished eighth and second here in both races in 2010. So expect Clint to jump out to a fast start this weekend, and content with Kasey Kahne for the victory. If he can run that well, with Talladega coming up, I think Clint and the 33 team will be fine.

    By the way, he's probably the only person in the world sad to see the second date leave this track.

REALLY Gotta Go: Travis Kvapil, No. 38 Long John Silver's Ford

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    A struggling Travis Kvapil looks to get the 38 team back to 2010's form.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Representing even further back in the field is Travis Kvapil.

    It doesn't get too much worse if you're a racecar driver, than it has for Kvapil so far in 2011.

    He is in a dismal 26th position in his full-time return to the Camping World Truck Series. He's crashed two out of the three races he's ran so far.

    And on the Sprint Cup side, his team is 39th. That's where he would be too if he were running for points. He DNF'd at Daytona and Phoenix because of crashes, and was caught up in another accident at Vegas.

    The only true race he's ran was last week at Bristol, and he finished 26th.

    After 4 races last year, Kvapil, and the 38 team were both 32nd in the points. Now they are 39th, a distant six points behind 35th place Casey Mears.

    Even his teammate the No. 37 car, driven by Robert Richardson, Jr. and Tony Raines is only two points out of the top-35.

    There is no hope for this team leaving California in the top-35. They need a top-20 at least, and I'm not sure if they are capable of that. Travis' computed average finish here is 28th. The team has struggled, but we will see.

    The team is trying. Jay Guy, who was with Penske Racing last season, is now in as Kvapil's new crew chief. I think this is a good move, and will help a lot. Maybe by 'Dega, they'll be back in the top-35, but it will be a battle all year.

    And don't worry, he'll be contending for the truck championship before the year's out too. Kvapil is a good driver, better than this. Let's just hope he got his slump out of the way early.