NASCAR

Slow starts don't dash Chase dreams

Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon on tire testing at Michigan
Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon on tire testing at Michigan
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Holly Cain

Holly Cain has covered racing in all its forms for 21 years, winning multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and Society of Professional Journalists for feature and news writing. She chronicled NASCAR Champion Rusty Wallace's final season, authoring a book called "Rusty's Last Call." Follow her on Twitter.

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It’s difficult to imagine a panic setting in only six races into NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series schedule. But the “you have to be kidding me” moments are starting to add up fast for a couple of championship favorites.

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They better start mashing the gas and consider carrying a clover. A four-leaf clover.

The bizarre opening of the 2012 season features “The Biff” leading the way, Junior Nation in near ecstasy and Tony Stewart winning like it’s October already.

And that’s not even the strange part.

Hendrick Motorsports, which is on the verge of its 200th win, hasn’t visited victory lane yet. And two of its drivers — four-time champ Jeff Gordon and the team’s golden new acquisition, Kasey Kahne — are sitting outside the top 20 in points.

The normally front-running Busch brothers, 16th-ranked Kyle and 26th-ranked Kurt can only be stunned at the misfortune and mishaps they’ve experienced in the first six races. And it has been a frustrating debut for Penske Racing’s much-ado new hire, A.J. Allmendinger, who is 20th in the standings, despite a career-best second-place finish at Martinsville, Va. two weeks ago.

Conversely, Martin Truex Jr., who has never been ranked in the top 10 six races into a season, is sixth in points, with four top-10 finishes.

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Truex's former Nationwide Series owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finds himself in a similar situation — enjoying the best statistical start to a season he’s ever had. Earnhardt is a mere six points behind leader Greg Biffle, with three top-five finishes, which equals his season-long total in 2010 and betters the mark (two) he had in all of 2009. Last year, he had four.

So how do Gordon and Kahne, Kyle and Kurt, and Allmendinger make their way into the Chase for the Championship 12-driver field in the remaining 20 weeks?
They don’t panic. They consider racing for wins, not points. And they cross their fingers that some of those who are riding career-making seasons free fall during the hot, usually contentious summer.

It has been done. Allmendinger’s Penske teammate Brad Keselowski was ranked 25th at this point in the season last year, only to reel off three summertime wins and finish the year a career-best fifth in the championship.

Of all the drivers needing to turn things around, Gordon most finds himself in unchartered waters. In the past 15 years, he hasn’t been ranked lower than 12th in the standings at this point in the season. Typically, he already has celebrated a win by mid-April.

The anomaly this year isn’t from a lack of effort.

His No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy has led at least one lap in every race, and Gordon’s total of 336 laps led is already equal to a third of his season-long total in each of the past three years. A rare engine failure in the season-opening Daytona 500 seemed to be an indicator of the struggles he has had and the resulting 22nd place average finish on the year.

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The good news is that he has finished out of the top  10 in points only once (2005) since his 1993 rookie year. And even if he has to qualify for the Chase as one of the two wild cards, no driver stands a better shot. He has won at every track (except the newly added Kentucky Speedway) the circuit visits between now and the Sept. 8 race at Richmond, which will set the playoff field.

Gordon's new teammate Kahne, meanwhile, absolutely must be shaking his head and wondering what a guy has to do. Hendrick Motorsports and Kahne have been anticipating this union for more than a year, and many racing experts predicted the 32-year-old would not only have a breakout season but might well pace the whole superstar team.

Instead, Kahne has amassed only 27 points more than Brian Vickers, who has only two starts this year. How frustrating has it been? Kahne leads the series with two poles, yet his No. 5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevy hasn’t led a single lap. His 7.8 average starting position has been answered with a maddening average finish of 28.5, a result of mechanical problems and too many times being at the wrong place at the wrong time on the racetrack.

"Certainly I think the 5 car has just had bad fortune," Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth said. "But if they have a couple more weeks of that, it’s going to be hard to come back from that.

"On the other side of that, with the way they rack the Chase, as long as you’re in top 20 and have a couple wins, no one’s really out of it yet. Certainly, not the top teams. It’s really early to panic. The 5 car could easily go out and win a couple races and get up a bit in the points and still be OK.

"With this new system, that’s what’s exciting about it. Somebody could get on a run in August and win a few races and put themselves right back in contention. Last year is a perfect example of that. Brad (Keselowski) didn’t really start the year off well and kept getting stronger and stronger as the year went on. He won some races, got himself into the Chase and had a great season out of it."

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger

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