NASCAR

Some fighting a different battle

David Reutimann, driver of the #00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, Brian Vickers, driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11
David Reutimann (00) and Brian Vickers (83) haven't started the season well.
SceneDaily.com JEFF OWENS
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What does Brian Vickers have in common with Robby Gordon?

How about young Joey Logano and journeyman Dave Blaney?

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Jeff Owens

Or star Jeff Burton and Casey Mears?

They all enter Auto Club Speedway in California in No Man's Land.

They are all in the precarious position of needing a good run at the 2-mile track to get into or stay inside the top 35 in owner points. Falling out could mean losing a guaranteed starting spot in the Sprint Cup field each week and being at risk of missing a race.

The 35 guaranteed starting spots are currently based on last year's top 35 in owner points. However, after Sunday's race at California, they will be based on the current 2011 owner points, meaning everyone near the top-35 cutoff is, theoretically, in danger.

Mears, driving for Germain Racing, is currently 35th in points, one point ahead of Blaney and Tommy Baldwin Racing. They are followed closely by Tony Raines and Front Row Motorsports, Andy Lally with TRG Motorsports and Front Row's Travis Kvapil.

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A poor performance at California would almost certainly knock Mears out of the top 35.

Also in danger, though, are the two teams ahead of him.

Gordon, driving for his own Robby Gordon Motorsports team, is 34th in points, seven behind former crew chief Frank Stoddard's FAS Lane Racing, which has used a variety of drivers this year and will have Truck series star Mike Skinner behind the wheel this weekend.

Just ahead of them are Vickers, Logano, Burton, David Reutimann and a host of other full-time Cup drivers who had much higher aspirations this year.

Vickers, Logano, Burton and Reutimann all were expected to be Chase contenders. Burton made it last year, Vickers in 2009. Reutimann and Logano have won races in the past two years and are considered drivers with the potential to crack the top 10 in points or make the Chase with a wild card.

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But after miserable starts, they are not only in danger of missing the Chase, but they are at risk of possibly falling out of the top 35 if things don't turn around in a hurry.

Right now, they have a bit of a cushion because most of the teams behind them are underfunded and uncompetitive, and some are start-and-park teams that don't try to complete a full race.

But Vickers is just 17 points ahead of 35th-place Mears. Logano and Burton each have a 22-point cushion.

That seems like a lot under NASCAR's new 43-to-1 points system, but what if they blow another engine or get in another early wreck and finish last while Mears, Robby Gordon or FAS Lane's driver of the week have a surprisingly good run, finishing in the top 25 or top 20?

All of a sudden, a driver with Chase aspirations could see his season unravel to the point that they could spend a few races just fighting to stay in the top 35 and maintain a guaranteed starting spot.

Not likely, but certainly possible, particularly the way they have started the season.

Vickers was involved in wrecks at both Daytona and Phoenix. He finished 10th in the third race of the season, at Las Vegas, but got swept up in another wreck last week at Bristol.

Logano has finished 23rd in three of the four races and 33rd in the other, encountering a host of problems, from a blown engine at Phoenix to a late wreck last week at Bristol.

“It's been a tough season,” Logano said. “Every time I think the bad luck is out of the way, something happens. … We are now to the point where we can't afford to have another bad race or we will never get the points back.”

The same holds true for Burton, Vickers, Logano and the rest.

Burton blew an engine at Daytona, got in a wreck at Phoenix and struggled the last two weeks trying to catch up, logging two more disappointing finishes.

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They aren't alone. Jamie McMurray, who won three races last year, has had something go wrong in all four races and is 27th in owner points. Reutimann has been in three wrecks, and Clint Bowyer (25th in points) has been derailed by a wreck at Phoenix and a wreck and blown engine last week at Bristol.

Greg Biffle, who also made the Chase last year, has had similarly poor luck. He was involved in a wreck at Daytona, struggled at Phoenix and had fueling issues at Las Vegas. After three races, he was buried in 31st in the standings.

Biffle, however, bounced back in a big way last week at Bristol, finishing eighth to climb eight spots in the standings, the biggest leap among all drivers.

Vickers, Logano, Burton and the rest need that kind of bounce-back performance this week at California.

If not, they could continue to be in danger in No Man's Land.

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