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Charting the Chase: Edwards, Labonte in danger zone

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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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As we drove home from Atlanta, Steve Byrnes brought up a great point about the top 35 in owner points being locked into races. For the the first five races of this season, the top 35 in 2005 owner points are locked into the field. But after the fifth race this weekend at Bristol, the top 35 is based on the owner point standings after each race for the rest of the season. If you're in the top 35 after Bristol, you're not locked in for the rest of the season. When the Nextel Cup Series goes to Martinsville next week, the current top 35 in owner points will be guaranteed a starting spot. When we head to Texas the following week, drivers who were not locked in headed into Martinsville could be locked in headed to Texas and vice versa. It's a race-to-race deal.

Who's up

  • Jeff Gordon: Last week, Gordon said he had a good run at Las Vegas, but he also ran well there last year. He normally runs well at Atlanta, and he backed it up with a 4th-place finish. He will run well the next two weeks because he always qualifies well at Bristol and Martinsville, and he won both Martinsville races last year. He's a force to reckon with on short tracks. In Gordon's mind, the team's first real test will be at Texas in three weeks.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Monday was the No. 8 team's best day of the season. At Fontana, they didn't have a very good racecar, but ended up with a decent finish. At Las Vegas, they had a decent racecar, but ended up with a terrible finish because of a pit-road speeding violation. At Atlanta, Earnhardt had a pretty good car when the race started. They got off a little bit, made adjustments based on driver feedback and made it better. By the end of the race, they finished 3rd as some cars fell by the wayside. Did they have a top-three car? I don't know, but they were headed toward having a top-five car.
  • Jeff Burton: On Saturday, Jeff Burton went to Victory Lane for the first time in a long, long time in his Busch ride. In the Cup race, he qualified well and had a great racecar. He and Scott Miller tried to salvage a top-10 finish. Tire problems plagued drivers all day so Burton made a late pit stop, and a top-five car ended up not even getting a top-20 finish. With the exception of Monday's race, it's great to see Burton do well in the Busch and Nextel Cup Series. When a driver struggles or stops performing at a high level, 9 out of 10 times, the finger is pointed at the driver. But equipment means so much when it comes to driver performance, and as Darrell Waltrip asked during Monday's race, "Did Jeff Burton go to a driving school and learn how to race again?" No. His race team and organization are supporting him and giving him good equipment. Like a lot of other drivers, Burton didn't forget how do drive.
  • Danger zone: Owner points after 4 races
    Rank Driver +/- 35th
    31. Carl Edwards +56
    32. Jeff Green +51
    33. Dave Blaney +36
    34. Jeremy Mayfield +9
    35. David Stremme --
    36. Brent Sherman -3
    37. Kevin Lepage -5
    38. Bobby Labonte -26
    39. Sterling Marlin -31
    40. Scott Wimmer -60

    Up and down day

  • Matt Kenseth and Robby Gordon: Both drivers had almost identical days. They qualified in the back and made their way through the field. Within three laps of each other, both had tire problems a lap or two before a caution. They both worked to get their lap back by passing leader Tony Stewart. They made their way through the field, and it looked like both were headed for a top five finish, maybe even a chance at the win. Then, once again, both of them had tire problems at about the same time. They stayed together pretty much all day long.
  • Greg Biffle: Although he moved up four positions in the standings, Biffle had a disheartening day for the second consecutive Atlanta spring race. He the led the most lap and raced in his own zip code for much of the day. Late in the race, his handling went away, and he appeared to run out of fuel at the end. He ended up without a top-15 finish. They've dug a little bit of a hole. They're not necessarily in jeopardy of falling out of top 35, but if he goes to Bristol and crashes out early, they could be on the fence.
  • Who's down

  • Kurt Busch: For the first time since Daytona, Busch looked like he had a car that was going to be a contender. He led 22 laps, but he was a victim when David Stremme's car got away from him, bumped Kevin Harvick and Harvick got into Busch who had nowhere to go.
  • Speed Mail Larry
  • Carl Edwards: In search of his third consecutive win at Atlanta, Edwards got together with Dave Blaney as Edwards was leaving and Blaney was coming into his stall. It wasn't Edwards' fault. The crew chief and the spotter must walk the driver out of the pits. Even if your driver stops, he might lost five to eight positions, but that's the lesser of two evils.
  • Bobby Labonte: The No. 43 team had a great opportunity to make up a lot of ground. For the first 50 laps, Labonte was a contender. When the No. 43 car took the lead early in the race, the fans went wild. After blowing an engine, they are behind the 8 ball. I won't say they've had four bad runs, but they've had four bad finishes. They ran well at Daytona and Atlanta and had bad runs at Fontana and Las Vegas. Now they're 26 points behind 35th place in the owner standings. Labonte runs well at Bristol. Crew chief Todd Parrott has always had good cars there. Their goal is to qualify well on Friday and win the race or have a good top-five finish. They need a good finish to stop the bleeding. Otherwise, they will have to go to Martinsville and qualify for the event on time.

  • FOX race analyst Larry McReynolds has more than 25 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, crew chief and broadcaster. He and his fellow Crew Chief Club members take you behind the wall at www.crewchiefclub.com.

    "How to Become a Winning Crew Chief" is on bookstore shelves, or you may order your own autographed copy from www.DWStore.com.

    Tagged: Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney

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