Predicting Which Struggling NASCAR Drivers Will Turn Their Seasons Around

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2013

Predicting Which Struggling NASCAR Drivers Will Turn Their Seasons Around

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    It happens every season, where a driver or drivers who were expected to do well coming out of the gate from the season-opening Daytona 500, simply fall or worst, flop miserably.

    The 2013 Sprint Cup season is no different, although the cast of characters may be. Drivers you thought for sure would have likely been in the top 10—if not the top 5—by now are struggling miserably just to get into the top 20.

    Let's take a look at five drivers who admittedly have been off the radar for much of the season already but still have plenty of time to turn their seasons around.

Tony Stewart

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    Alright, we all know Tony Stewart is off to the worst start of his Sprint Cup career. He remains mired outside the top 20—he dropped back to 22nd place after Sunday's race at Talladega.

    But this is the man known as Smoke we're talking about. He's historically been a slow starter, but typically makes up for things with a torrid pace in the second half of the season.

    Granted, Stewart has just one top-10 finish in the first 10 races this season. That's so unlike him.

    But as he's shown in other seasons where he's gotten off to a poor start, Stewart typically starts to warm up in June.

    Although he's 159 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson, Stewart is just 56 points out of the top 10. Plus, if he wins at least two races between now and the fall event at Richmond, he's a likely lock to earn one of the two wild card spots and still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Stewart hasn't won three Cup championships, including his tremendous run to win the 2011 title, based solely on luck. He just needs one outstanding finish to give him and his team some momentum, and he'll take it from there.

    Don't be surprised if that may come this Saturday night at Darlington.

Kurt Busch

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    Two things are hard to believe about Kurt Busch thus far this season.

    First, he's had some very good finishes that have seemingly flown under the radar (fourth at Bristol, fifth at Fontana and ninth at Richmond).

    Second, he's shown himself to be much more competitive with Furniture Row Racing than he was last season with Phoenix Racing. Much of that reason is tied to funding, but Busch arguably has shown much more this season thus far.

    Of course, he's also had some bad races, including Martinsville and Texas (both 37th) and Sunday at Talladega (30th), all ending less than hoped for primarily due to wrecks.

    Still, Busch is 20th in the standings heading into Darlington, a place he loves to race at and where he had one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history, banging fenders with Ricky Craven all the way to the finish line.

    He's 152 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson, but just 49 points out of 10th place.

    Not bad at all. And if he can continue to increase the good finishes and reduce the bad ones, don't be surprised if he makes the Chase this season.

Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano has had more ups and downs thus far this season than a roller coaster—which actually may be the best way to describe the 2013 campaign thus far.

    Logano moved to a new team this season (Penske Racing), has had to learn all-new crew members and crew chief (Todd Gordon) and has fared okay, not great but not overly bad, either.

    But watching Logano's place in the Sprint Cup standings after each race has been like watching a stock on Wall Street taking a wild ride. He's been as low as 20th (twice) and as high as ninth and 11th.

    Logano is currently 18th in the standings (dropped one spot from 17th after Talladega). While a top-10 season finish may seem distant, a top 15 at the end of this season's 36 races still appears very doable.

    Heck, even with some luck, he might be an outside shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup as a wild card—but that will take a bit of doing.

    The one good thing for Logano is that starting in early July at Daytona, the series starts revisiting tracks for the second time. When that happens, he'll be more comfortable and have a better communication process with Gordon and the rest of his crew.

Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick had no preconceived notions or delusions of grandeur coming into her first full season in Sprint Cup racing. She knew it was going to be difficult, but she was ready to show the sport and the world that she was up to the challenge.

    Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson have had highs and lows this season, arguably more lows. But still, as hard as it may seem for some fans to believe, Patrick really isn't all that far away from attaining her goal of finishing in the top 20 to 25 in her rookie season.

    She currently is ranked 27th, 203 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. While that may seem a huge margin, the fact is Patrick is just 51 points out of 20th place, currently occupied by Kurt Busch.

    Sure, there's still 26 races to go—including 16 before the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup—but right now, it appears Patrick is definitely on target to achieving what she hoped to do in her Cup debut season.

Denny Hamlin

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    The thing with Denny Hamlin is his floundering is not due to performance but injury, a compression fracture in his back suffered at Auto Club Speedway on March 24. The injury sidelined Hamlin for four races; he attempted to race for an extended period in his comeback event this past Sunday at Talladega but was able to last just 25 laps before yielding to relief driver Brian Vickers.

    We'll likely see the same in-and-out routine this Saturday at Darlington, where Hamlin will run a handful of laps at the so-called "Track Too Tough to Tame" before turning the steering wheel back over to Vickers.

    But there's a rub here: If and when Hamlin is fully healthy and able to run an entire race, he's going to have the added pressure of having a finite number of races remaining to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Hamlin spent this past weekend talking about how all he needs to do is win a couple of races and get into the top 20, and he's practically a lock to make the Chase (he's currently in 31st place, 228 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson).

    Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Even with all the talent he possesses, Hamlin cannot realistically expect that he'll still make the Chase, even with all that he's faced.

    Winning one race, let alone two or more, is probably going to be one of the hardest things he'll ever do because of the incredible amount of pressure upon him to do what is hard enough to do in 26 races, let alone try to do so in the remaining 16 races leading up to the Chase.

    While we're pulling for Hamlin to pull off a Hail Mary and make the Chase, the odds aren't exactly in his favor. But if he can do it, it would be one of NASCAR's great comeback stories—one that would be even greater if he somehow manages to still win the Cup championship.


    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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