NASCAR

Charting the Chase: Title is Stewart's to lose

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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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With only seven races under their belts, the Nextel Cup teams enjoyed their second off-weekend. From now until the end of the season, the Cup teams only get one more off-weekend at the end of July.

Even though they tested at Richmond last week, it was a very welcome off-weekend. It gave teams that have been taking a beating early in the season a chance to breathe and say, 'OK, let's go to Phoenix with a fresh start and a clean slate. Whether we've struggled due to performance or luck, we're starting over as we begin a stretch of 13 point races.' Teams used to be able to give up some races, but the competition is much stronger. Plus, it's now a 26-race schedule to get into the Chase for the Nextel Cup. You can't give up anything anywhere.

  • Joe Gibbs Racing: The Gibbs' stuff is pretty solid. When it's all said and done, it's Tony Stewart's championship to lose again. It doesn't matter where the No. 20 team goes, they're solid everywhere. Denny Hamlin was awesome all weekend long at Texas, and J.J. Yeley looked like he had a car to contend for the win there.
  • Richard Childress Racing: As a whole, the Childress group has been one of the more pleasant surprises, making among the biggest turnarounds from last year. All three cars are very competitive. I really hate what happened to Clint Bowyer at Texas. Darrell Waltrip and I both commented that it was a good gamble by crew chief Gil Martin to take two tires. Obviously, it wasn't going to be a race-winning move, but it should have bought him a much better finish than if he had just followed the leaders onto pit road and done the same thing that they did.
  • Dale Earnhardt Inc.: Another pleasant surprise this year has been the No. 8 car. Last year at this point, Dale Jr. was 355 points out of the lead, but this year, he's only 112 points back. Martin Truex Jr. is closer to the leader than Earnhardt was at this point last year. He's part of a group of five phenomenal rookies.
  • Evernham Motorsports: Give Kasey Kahne a good day at Martinsville, where he had an engine problem, and he probably would have a pretty good point lead right now. But mechanical failures are part of racing. Kahne has overcome two big obstacles by running as well as he did at the short tracks. They've got to be a little bit nervous about the two road course races coming up before the Chase. Ray Evernham is making sure that they get Kahne in good shape for Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Scott Riggs has come to life lately. Ray Evernham has to be pulling his hair out over the No. 19 car. It's hard to believe two cars could be so good out of one stable while one car can be so bad.
  • Roush Racing: The Roush teams are still strong. Nine out of 10 things that have happened to Greg Biffle have been out of his control. They had the car to beat at Fontana before an engine problem ended their day. They had a top-notch car at Bristol and had a tire issue. They did get back on the lead lap, but the problem was just too much to overcome at a short track. He had a pretty darn good car at Martinsville and got caught up in a wreck. At Texas — a lot like Fontana — it looked like it was his race to lose. The No. 16 team just needs to ride out the wave, and their problems should eventually go away. When I look at the other Roush cars, the biggest disappointment of the year so far has been the No. 26 car with Jamie McMurray. They are absolutely terrible. The only bright note was Martinsville where they sat on the outside of the front row and had a top-10 finish. You know you're in trouble when you're at a racetrack like Texas where the team and the driver have performed well, but you're in the garage area changing springs and shocks, checking the rear end and everything else. You're in big trouble when that's happening.
  • Penske Racing: The Dodge teams without the Intrepid. In addition to the No. 26 car, one of the biggest disappointments of 2006 on qualifying day and race day has been Ryan Newman's No. 12 team. They have been terrible during the races.
  • Hendrick Motorsports: The Hendrick stuff hasn't been as strong as we thought it would be. A few weeks before last week's race, Jeff Gordon said Texas would be the telltale sign that they've improved from 2005. They've got to be a little concerned after last Sunday. Obviously, Gordon had a better car than his 22nd-place finish would indicate because of a flat tire under green, but the No. 24 wasn't very good. And Jimmie Johnson's car was just OK.
  • Robert Yates Racing: The Yates' teams still have a lot of work to do. With all of the changes that Robert Yates has made, they're just not where they should be. They've been hit and miss, but more miss than hit.
  • Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates: The No. 42 team started the season like championship contenders, but they struggled for three races before turning in a 14th-place finish at Texas. David Stremme is struggling right now, but the majority of the rookie class — including Stremme's teammate Reed Sorenson — has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Ever since going home to Atlanta, Sorenson has been good.
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  • Bill Davis Racing: In general, Bill Davis' teams — Michael Waltrip, Dave Blaney and the No. 23 car when they run it — are struggling.
  • MB2 Motorsports: Sterling Marlin has struggled and Joe Nemechek has had a run of bad luck.
  • Petty Enterprises: With its second top-10 finish of the season, the No. 43 team made up ground at Texas, moving up six spots in the standings to 30th in owner points.
  • BAM Racing: Brent Sherman missed the show at Texas, and substitute driver Jimmy Spencer missed the show at Martinsville so they've fallen 197 points out of 35th place.
  • Wood Brothers: Ken Schrader has had a good racecar the last two or three races, but the No. 21 team has to figure out how to stop falling a lap down early. It seems like the main reason we talk about Schrader is he's battling to be the first car a lap down to get the free pass. At Bristol and Martinsville, he had a car that would run in the top five, but he was a lap or two down. His team is starting to show a little bit of a spark and is definitely picking up the pace.
  • Haas CNC Racing: The No. 66 team has learned how to run fast, they've just got to figure out how to close the deal. They had a great car at Atlanta and had a lugnut problem. They had a fast car at Texas, but they had some late-race issues. Jeff Green and his team are on the verge of busting out. They have all the resources because it's pretty much a fifth satellite Hendrick Motorsports team. They have an open-book policy as far aero, chassis and setups. Anything they want, crew chief "Bootie" Barker can get it, but they've just got to figure out how to put together the beginning, middle and end of a race. They showed some fast times at the Richmond test, and they have Hendrick engines so they could be very close to running in the top 10 and top 15 consistently.
  • Robby Gordon Motorsports: The No. 7 team needs to figure out how to be on the same agenda as other teams on green-flag stops. If they didn't have to pit a little bit early — whether it's because of fuel or something else — then maybe they wouldn't end up getting burned by making green-flag stops just before the caution comes out. But what a difference a year has made. I've got to believe Gordon and his team are getting more confident. Like the No. 66 team, they have to build on their performance and not be discouraged by their finishes. You earn championships based on where you are in the points, but you've got to pay close attention to how you're running to build your team's confidence.
  • Hall of Fame Racing: We've got to give them time. In the first five races with Terry Labonte, they did all they set out to do. Finish races, not tear up equipment and get into the top 35 in owner points. Mission accomplished. But when you look at their high-profile sponsor and team, I've got to believe that Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach and Bill Saunders aren't going to be patient. Soon they will look for at least competitive top-15 runs. If you can finish in the top 15 in Nextel Cup week in and week out — it might not be exactly what you're looking for — but for a first-year team, it would be pretty darn good. I'm sure they're going to give the team until late May or early summer. I don't mean to throw off on Tony Raines, crew chief Philippe Lopez or anybody else, but at the end of the day, they have the same engines that Tony Stewart, J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin have. They've got access to a lot of Joe Gibbs Racing's resources. Now they need to figure out they have to do to make this team a top 15 operation. They've definitely got some work to do.
  • Furniture Row Racing and PPI Motorsports: Both teams have a lot of work to do. How do you have an association with one team in Hickory, N.C. and one in Denver, Colo.? I'm not saying that you can't operate out of Denver, Colo., but until the No. 78 team makes some races and shows a little bit of spark, I will question operating a team out of Denver, Colo. How do you get the right people and resources? How do you have access to wind tunnels? I know Cal Wells, and I talk to him a lot. I've been to his operation, and there's no reason that the No. 32 team should be missing races. Although they are a single-car operation, Wells has to be beating himself to death because he's spending money, making changes and building all new racecars this year. They've got Childress engines. I'm not saying they should be a championship contender or even winning races, but they should make the show every week. As I've said time and time again, it's all about people. The top 15 or 20 Nextel Cup team all have the same resources and probably have close to the same horsepower and aero. NASCAR's rules package keeps everybody fairly equal so what's the difference? It's the people who are putting the equipment on the racetrack.

  • 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 Gordon, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs, Reed Sorenson, Sterling Marlin, Brent Sherman, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Jimmy Spencer

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