This article is going to take the top-22 drivers who I feel are in "mathmatical" contention for the chase. You will see whether or not I feel that these drivers are contenders or pretenders to make it into the twelve car, ten race shootout. The current top-10 will clearly contend, so we will leave them out of this article.
Just because a driver is a contender, doesn't mean I think he will aboslutely make it in. It means he's going to contend.
But a pretender is someone who is off to a nice start, but maybe will have to wait another season to be a contender. Let's start our countdown!
Martin Truex Jr. is currently 22nd in NASCAR's new points system.
This is a total disappointment for a man who was 7 spots higher after nine races last year. He and crew chief, Pat Tryson are off to an awful start.
They had a good run at Richmond, but blew it and ended up 27th. And it's not good runs that's going to get you into the top-10, it's good finishes. With only ONE top-10 in nine races, Truex is the definition of PRETENDER, and I doubt very highly that he will win a race the rest of the way.
However, Dover is Martin's home track. If he can FINISH in the top-5 then the page may start to turn for Truex, but that's just not going to happen.
Joey Logano was a nice story. I remember hearing Mark Martin saying when Logano was 15 that, "He could run in the Cup Series, today!"
Well Mark, and everyone else, here he is, and that's all he's been doing.
Logano totally needs to pick it up. For some reason this kid flies under the radar. But for how much longer?
His sponsor, The Home Depot, won two championships, and 33 races with former driver Tony Stewart. By the end of Stewart's third year, he compiled 12 victories.
So only having a rain-shortened race victory at New Hampshire in his rookie year, and not contending for wins has got to be getting frustrating for The Home Depot. It makes them, and everyone else start asking the question, "is this kid the real deal?"
I like the kid. I met him at Daytona last year. He's a nice kid, and handles the pressure of NASCAR very well, however, now it's go time.
I predicted that Logano was going to make the chase this year. I was so wrong. I doubt he'll even make it in 2012. He may not even win a race.
And with the rumblings out of the Gibbs' garage about a crew chief change, which I think will happen, 2011 might as well be another write-off year for the 21 year old, "Sliced Bread," as once again he remains a PRETENDER.
In this picture, Burton is smiling, but I'm sure underneath, he's frustrated as anything, but I still believe he's a CONTENDER!
Jeff will be 44 at the end of June, and as he has just re-signed with Richard Childress Racing, this is Burton's last big shot at a championship.
He and the #31 team have still yet to record a top-10 finish so far. But they're showing much promise in the last three races.
After a torrid start, dowsed with a ton of bad luck, they look to be back on track. Three straight top-20 finishes have this team running more consistently, and with these guys' track record, it could be just the start of something big.
I don't think Burton has the points or the luck to muster up an Alan Kulwicki come back. But he will win before Richmond. Darlington, Dover, Charlotte, are all very good tracks for Burton.
These next three weeks will be key. If he does not run well, it will be all over. I personally think he will run well enough to make it in, and upset everyone with a victory at Atlanta to squeak in with one of the two wildcard spots, but it's not going to be easy.
David Ragan is going to be a tough one for me. It seems like everytime I start to count this kid out, he has a run like he had at Richmond to keep me wondering.
Plus, Roush Fenway Racing, and really Ford Motor Company in general are running better. He's already through nine races has more top 10's and top-5s than he's had in the last two seasons, dating back to that magical 2008 season.
In 2008, Ragan got red hot following a 4th place finish at Talladega, the ninth race of the season.
The ninth race in 2011, Richmond, he finished 4th.
So far in 2011 Ragan has 1 top 5 and three top tens. After Talladega in 2008, one top-5, and two top 10's.
Ragan made it to 13th in points by the time Richmond came around and barely missed the chase. With two more years under his belt, and Trevor Bayne lurking around waiting for a ride in 2012, that may be all the fire Ragan needs to compete.
UPS is probably growing impatient too. In their 10th season in racing, they haven't won much, and have never made a chase.
But 2011 will be the year they will contend for one. Mark that down right now. David Ragan is a CONTENDER, you heard it here first. You will be shocked, and no not just for the wild card, but for the top-10. All of the Roush Fords will be in the 2011 chase, ready to do battle, and he will get a least one win before Homestead.
Contrary of his 19th place points position, Kasey Kahne has had a VERY good 2011.
At Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol, and Fontana, he had back-to-back-to-back-to-back top 15 place finishes.
A crash at Martinsville had him finish 39th. And another crash at Talladega had him finish 37th.
He competed for a win at Richmond and ended up 3rd.
Kahne and this Red Bull team are cooking on all cylinders. This team used to struggle on the short tracks, but now are running great on these same tracks.
Kahne's going to slowly move up in the top-10, and is a clear CONTENDER not only for the chase, but for the championship.
The road courses are the tracks where he can make up some real ground, and expect him to win one of those races, amongst several others the rest of the season.
Denny Hamlin is a CONTENDER, but only for a wild card spot.
It's not just Hamlin, it's Joe Gibbs Racing.
They've still failed to fix their mechanical failures that have costed Hamlin early in the year. Until they do, Hamlin will not run well, even after finishing runner-up at Richmond.
And I don't care what, the Mike Ford/Greg Zipadelli crew chief swap will take place sometime during the year. When it does, Denny and Zippy are going to need time to get used to each others styles, and won't be able to turn it around fast enough to make it into the top-10.
I think 12th will be a logical spot for Hamlin to end up. We've seen the good/struggling teams make it into the chase (Carl Edwards) in years passed by being 12th. I think that's a good spot for Denny.
Plus Richmond comes back on the schedule again too. He could win there in my car. Pocono is another good track for him, so one or more wins is not out of the question, but don't expect the same thing from #11 as you got in 2010.
I remember when I was a young boy, rooting against #24.
But Jeff Gordon has grown up, and become likable. I felt awful for him at Richmond. Gordon had just put himself in perfect position to win the Crown Royal presents the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400, before his good buddy, Matt Kenseth cut him off and ruined a good night.
Gordon's a CONTENDER because, well because HE'S A 4-TIME CHAMPION. Also because he's already got that win that every other driver outside of the top-10 doesn't.
Jeff will win, and win, and win some more before the chase, and he will be solidly in for the chase with no worries at all. Let his bad luck come out now, and don't worry Gordon fans, he will be fine, number 24 is just starting to heat up, and Alan Gustafson is going to look more like the Alan Gustafson from 2009, not 2010.
Paul Menard is 15th in the standings, and mark this date down, cause it won't last for long.
Unlike almost everybody else in this countdown, Paul's going the other way.
He is totally a PRETENDER, and don't let his hot start fool you. Those cars behind him, the Ragans, Burtons, and Gordons will start running better. Someone will not for those guys to run well.
One of those will be Paul Menard. His track record stinks, and I'm not so sure if Menard has the work ethic to be a serious contender.
Once things don't go his way, he will complain and that will ruin his season.
I will give the kid props though, he's been better, but so would anyone with the move he made. Paul may shock me, but I doubt it VERY highly.
Even if he continues at this pace, he will only still be 15th, and not improving. I think it's safe to say he won't win, and so that means he won't be competing, sorry Menard fans, Paul's not going to do it.
"The Biff" is a CONTENDER.
The slow start he got off to may have been attributed by his contract status.
But now Biffle and 3M are set for 3 more at Roush Fenway Racing, and set to contend for the championship.
Biffle was one of the best Roush cars as 2010 ended, and there's no doubt that he will find victory lane. All of those 1.5/2 mile tracks will be big ones for the Roush cars as always, and I think he is the best driver in that stable.
Biffle will make the top-10, and I'm sure you'll hear John Roberts say, "I'm sticking with the Biff" a lot more before the year's out.
52-year old, Mark Matin is 13th in points.
But 2011 is looking more like 2010, and less like 2009.
I think the tell-tale sign for this team was the crew chief change before 2011. They moved Lance McGrew, with one year left on his contract, with Mark Martin, with one year left on this contract.
Now I don't care how professional the guys at the number 5 shop are, that's a distraction. Period.
I think this team is more focused on Kasey Kahne in 2012, then Mark Martin in 2011. For that, Mark is a PRETENDER, and it's not fault of his or Lance McGrew's.
Poor Mark, I'm like everyone else, I love the guy, but he's in a tough spot. The old man's not done though, he'll be driving the #09 Martin-Finch Racing Chevy next year, and trying to win his championship in 2013, at the ripe bold age of 54.
Juan Pablo showed a lot of life in sitting on the pole at Richmond.
And he showed that he won't be pushed around at all when he spun Ryan Newman.
But he's got to keep his head on straight. I don't know if he can do that.
He gets angry easily, and when things get tough, he over drives his car and puts it into the wall.
That doesn't sound much like a chase contender to me. So I feel he's a PRETENDER.
Juan may win one of the road course races, but he's certainly not ready to win on an oval. Indianapolis is not an oval, and he could win there too.
But could. If he doesn't speed on pit road, and if things go his way. They usually don't in this sport. Juan won't compete for the chase, and Chip Ganassi will have a tough decision ahead of him on whether or not to re-sign Montoya, but bank on him being back.
Your sister's favorite, AJ Allmendinger, is a PRETENDER, tell her I'm sorry.
Nice start, and it's been consistent as anything, but Richard Petty Motorsports is not ready to compete for a chase yet, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.
AJ hasn't had a bad run all year. No bad luck. He's kept the car off the wall, but has only finished in the top-10 twice.
The fact that he is 11th at this point is a feat and a surprise in itself. AJ's going to end up about 17th, right where this team belongs, and that's a good start.
If they can get a third team going, then I think this pretender could change into a contender in 2012.