Now that the Easter Bunny has hopped away for another year the Sprint Cup Series can get down to business.
There are no more off weekends for NASCAR’s number one division until the third week of July so beginning with Saturday night’s visit to Richmond International Raceway teams are looking at three months of straight work. Technically the All-Star Race weekend in Charlotte is “off,” but since every team participates in either the preliminary race and/or the main event down time across the board is over.
It’s now make or break time for several high-profile drivers who are in danger of falling completely out of the Sprint Cup championship picture at least in terms of securing a spot inside the top ten of the point standings. But this year two additional drivers can punch their ticket to the Chase by winning the most races outside the first ten in the standings so the door to the playoffs is not completely shut.
Coming into the season there were several drivers who were pegged as Chase contenders who frankly just have not lived up to those expectations with eight races in the book. Whether it’s a climb up the point standings or racking up multiple wins to get into position for a Wild Card, this group of underachievers has a lot of work to from now until September:
Last year’s championship runner-up continues to struggle and shows no signs that an end to that frustration is anywhere in sight. When Martinsville and Texas rolled around on the calendar most believed Hamlin’s 2011 woes would come to an end given the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s recent success at both tracks. But with mediocre finishes to show for his effort as well as being a non-factor in Talladega, Hamlin finds himself buried in the standings in 17th place, a whopping 100 points behind leader Carl Edwards. Another home date Saturday night in Richmond has become do or die time for Hamlin.
After making a living winning the biggest races of the season a year ago including victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 McMurray was nearly a consensus expert’s pick as a Chase participant in 2011. He still may live up to those predictions but it’s looking more and more like McMurray will have to replicate his winning ways of last season to do so as a Wild Card. There hasn’t been munch consistency in the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing No. 1 stable so far and McMurray has slipped to 23rd in the standings. Based on last year he certainly has the ability to rattle off wins and get on a roll. It’s time to deliver the 2011 edition of that kind of performance.
His Top 10 finishes to end last season pointed to 2011 as Logano’s break through Sprint Cup season. But that stellar run to finish last year’s schedule seems like a distant memory for the fourth year driver who until Talladega hadn’t scored a Top 10 all year. Logano is mired in 24th place and faces a long uphill battle to have any chance of finding his way into the Chase for the first time in his Cup career.
Yet another driver who showed flashes of brilliance in 2010 but has had nothing bus disappointment this season. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver hasn’t had a Top 10 finish yet and is floundering in the lower end of the point standings sitting 26th heading into Richmond. There are a slew of mile-and-a-half tracks on the horizon where Reutimann has excelled in the past including his win at Chicagoland Speedway last summer. He needs to recapture that success or be forced to be a Chase observer rather than participant come September.
The defending Nationwide Series champion still runs well in NASCAR’s number two series on Saturday afternoons. However it’s a completely different story on the Cup side of the fence when Sunday rolls around for the Penske Racing driver continuing to struggle. Keselowski is 27th in the standings for a reason – he has no Top 10 finishes and four finishes outside the top twenty-five in the first eight races of the season. Winning his way into the Chase appears to be Keselowski’s only way of making the playoffs and right now that is a long shot at best.
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