Getting Lapped: These 2010 Chasers Are off the Pace
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After the first four races of the 2011 season, several drivers who made the Chase last year find themselves looking upward in the standings.
In fact, only five of the 2010 Chasers are in the top 12 in points.
Crashes, engine failures, pit road woes and plain old bad luck have contributed to the rocky starts to their seasons.
With the Sprint Cup series heading to Auto Club Speedway this week, these drivers will need good runs to get headed back in the right direction.
California will provide a good litmus test to determine which of these teams can get their programs on track and which could be in for long, disappointing seasons.
Who are these drivers, and which of them are likely to get the job accomplished on Sunday? Read on to find out.
Jeff Burton, 29th in Points
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The good thing about Jeff Burton's season is that after finishing 36th in the Daytona 500, he's improved his finishing position every week.
The bad thing is he has yet to finish higher than 20th and has only one lead lap finish.
Needless to say, it's been a rough year for Burton and the No. 31 Caterpillar team after winning their Gatorade Duel during Speedweeks.
He led five laps in the Daytona 500 before crashing, and it's been a struggle ever since to right the ship.
Burton needs a good run at California but could be in for another tough day. In his previous four races at the track, he has just one top-20 and two finishes of 30th or worse.
If he has another poor finish, Burton's Chase hopes could already be looking bleak.
2. Clint Bowyer, 24th in Points
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RCR driver Clint Bowyer has shared in his teammate Jeff Burton's struggles. Like Burton, he has yet to record a top-10 finish in 2011.
However, Fontana should provide a good opportunity for Bowyer to turn his season around. He has three consecutive top-10s at the track, including a runner-up effort last fall.
In 10 career California races, Bowyer has a strong average finish of 11.0.
He could use a strong run on Sunday to launch himself back into Chase contention.
3. Greg Biffle, 23rd in Points
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Unlike the previous two drivers, Greg Biffle has had some strong runs in 2011.
Unfortunately, he has only one top-10 to show for it, and for the most part, has failed to take part in the Roush resurgence being led by Carl Edwards this year.
Biffle has managed to find bad luck more often than not. At Las Vegas, a plethora of mistakes led to him finishing three laps off the pace, despite having possibly the fastest car on the track.
Luckily for Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing has won four of the last 10 races at Auto Club Speedway.
Unluckily for Biffle, he generally runs poorly at the track, with no wins and an average finish of 18.8.
If he doesn't find a way to record only his sixth Fontana top-10 in 17 tries, it could be a while before Biffle can climb in the standings.
4. Jeff Gordon, 19th in Points
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Sure, Jeff Gordon won at Phoenix earlier this year to break a two-year winless drought. But he is well outside of the top 10 in points.
Even though he would actually be in the Chase by virtue of his victory, Gordon is far from comfortable with where he sits in the standings.
Fontana provides a perfect opportunity for Gordon to improve his points position. He sports an average finish of 9.3 in the last 10 races at the track and has one victory there overall.
Gordon won't be sitting this low in the points for long.
5. Denny Hamlin, 17th in Points
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Could Denny Hamlin be suffering a hangover from his title bout with Jimmie Johnson in 2010?
With a single top-10 in 2011 and only 16 laps led, that certainly appears to be a possibility.
At Bristol last week, Hamlin found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught up in a wreck. He eventually finished 12 laps down and slipped to 17th in the standings.
Hamlin has had some good runs at California in the past but doesn't have the results to show for it, with just four top-10s in 10 races.
He will need to do far better than his average finish of 17.2 in order to start moving northward in the standings.
6. Kevin Harvick, 15th in Points
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Kevin Harvick is the third RCR driver on this list, somewhat shocking after RCR placed all three of its teams in the Chase in 2010.
Last week at Bristol, Harvick managed to rebound from the spin pictured above to finish sixth, or he'd be sitting far lower in the points.
And sure, 15th in the points isn't the end of the world this early in the season, but it's a far cry from the form Harvick displayed last year.
Luckily for Harvick, Fontana has been an excellent track for him lately. He has five top-10s in his last six races at the track, and "Happy" ought to bounce upward in the standings after Sunday's race.
7. Jimmie Johnson, Zero Wins
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Yes, I know Jimmie Johnson is doing fine in the points. But with him, that's a given.
The main problem with the 48 team is that it's not winning. In fact, Johnson has just three victories in the last 35 Sprint Cup races. By Johnson's standards, that's awful.
Last week at Bristol, Johnson did what he needed to do, but he still didn't win the race.
Johnson won this race last year. If he's going to make a sixth consecutive title run, he needs to get back to his winning ways.
He has five career wins at Fontana, and adding a sixth on Sunday would show he's found his groove after an unimpressive start to the season.