Who will be the spoilers in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup? With the 2010 Chase field complete, which drivers outside the top are on course to stall the championship parade? With nothing to lose, there’s no reason why drivers outside of the Chase Zone can’t continue to excel. Lee Spencer picks 10 drivers who will take points off the board, as well as steal the spotlight at times, from the title Chasers.
Allmendinger appears on the verge of a breakthrough. With a new contract for 2011, Allmendinger will become the senior driver at Richard Petty Motorsports. But now is the time to start laying the groundwork for the next chapter for the famed No. 43. Allmendinger scored his first career Cup pole at Phoenix and led a career-high 17 laps. He’s improved his current qualifying average (17.4) by more than five positions over last year and his average finish by three spots. Allmendinger’s greatest weakness this season is the team’s inability to keep up with the race track. While the pit crew has improved dramatically, late-race adjustments on the No. 43 have been hit or miss. Allmendinger has top-10 finishes on six of the 10 Chase tracks. If the team can dial the car in for the closing laps, Allmendinger will be able to remain with the leaders and eventually vie for wins.
Logano ran well early, but slid into a sophomore slump after an accident at Talladega in April and has not toyed with the Chase since. He has experienced his share of growing pains this season, garnering more attention for altercations with veteran drivers on and off the track than for his racing. While seasoned Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Greg Zipadelli has been a guiding force, the drama has been disruptive. Logano, 20, won his first career pole at Bristol, and while he’s improved his qualifying effort from 20.5 to 16.2, he’s led just 13 laps in 25 races. Logano’s average finish of 20th in 2009 has only picked up to 18.8 while his teammates thrived. His lone career win is at New Hampshire, a track where he also earned one of this year’s nine top-10 finishes. Logano’s only top fives came at California (fifth) and Martinsville (second), so don’t be surprised if he repeats his spring performances in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota.
Martin Truex Jr.
For Truex Jr., 2010 has been a building year with a new team, new crew chief and new manufacturer in the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota. At least he’s had the leadership of crew chief Pat Tryson through the transition. Truex jumped into the Chase Zone — however, briefly — after winning the pole and finishing 12th at his home track in Dover. But he lasted just one week and has not been able to string together top-10 finishes. Consistency has plagued Truex, 30, throughout the course of his Cup career. In his fifth year on the tour, Truex has led just 13 laps, fewer than any previous season. Although Truex’ only Cup win came at Dover, his true strength is on superspeedways, which play a part in the Chase. As his relationship blossoms with Tryson, so does his chance of competing for wins. Given his prior success at both New Hampshire and Talladega in the Nationwide Series, Truex could beat the field at either track.
Juan Pablo Montoya
After a breakthrough season in 2009, Montoya has been plagued with inconsistency. Last year, Montoya was running at the finish of all 36 races. In 2010, Montoya was sidelined in seven of the first 20 events, leaving no chance of a Chase berth. But winning is the best revenge. Leading 74 of 90 laps at Watkins Glen – including the final circuit – boosted the No. 42 Target team’s momentum. Since the victory, Montoya has not finished worse than ninth and the team jumped four spots in the standings. Montoya’s two poles tie his career best and he’s picked up his average qualifying effort from 12.8 in 2009 to 11th. Montoya has led a total of 385 laps – three short of last year’s sum. When considering non-Chase contenders, Montoya has to be at the top of the list. With no points on the line, Montoya has nothing to lose. And if the former Formula One racer can finally pick up an oval win, the accomplishment will further confirm his staying power.
Reutimann holds the distinction of being one of 11 drivers to win races in 2010. He is one of seven currently on the Sprint Cup tour to post victories the last two years and the only one on that list not to qualify for the Chase. Still, it’s fair to say that Reutimann and his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates have not enjoyed consistent horsepower. Three engine failures in the first eight races of 2010 destroyed any hope “The Franchise” had of contending in the Chase. Reutimann led laps in just six races — including at Chicagoland Speedway, the site of his second career Cup win. But Reutimann has led more laps after 25 races than in any previous season. While the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine team hasn’t proven to be a dominant force, the chemistry between Reutimann and crew chief Rodney Childers makes up for any mechanical weaknesses. This crew can slip in and win races — particularly on intermediate tracks, rain or shine.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For the third time in four years, Earnhardt Jr. is on the outside of the Chase. No, Junior isn’t in the best place of his career, but he has shown signs of promise. If NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver can make do with his current situation and find a way to communicate with crew chief Lance McGrew in the final races, Junior Nation might find a way to celebrate once again. Earnhardt’s pole-winning lap at Atlanta in March was his first time topping time trials in 69 races. And to Earnhardt’s credit, he has completed every race this season and 99.6 percent of all laps raced going into Richmond. As expected, Earnhardt was money at restrictor-plate tracks. His only top-five finishes came at Daytona, but he led laps at Talladega, Texas and Charlotte – sites of three races which will prove pivotal in the Chase. Twelve of Earnhardt’s 18 career Cup wins were scored on the next 11 tracks on the schedule.
With all the contract drama surrounding Kasey Kahne this season, it’s a testament to his talent that the 30-year-old has remained in the top 20. Still, Kahne has not lacked for equipment at Richard Petty Motorsports. He retained the best and the brightest of his former crew and the team continues to benefit the Ford camp. Despite a new engine package, Kahne has led laps in just seven of 25 races this season. However, in those races Kahne ran at the point for 310 laps compared to 248 circuits for all over 2009. There’s no doubt that Kahne has the equipment to run up front. Although it has been a year since Kahne’s last win (Atlanta 9/6/09), six of his 11 career victories were won on upcoming tracks. And while Kahne has yet to win at New Hampshire, he dominated the Magic Mile in June, leading 110 of the first 236 laps before his engine expired. Expect Kahne to be a favorite there when NASCAR returns this week.
Martin was the 2009 AARP poster child with five wins and a career-high seven poles. Whether it was the shuffling of personnel at his team or a variety of accidents which led to three early exits, the progress of the No. 5 Chevrolet stalled this year. He has been in and out of Chase contention and the three weeks leading to Richmond were not kind. As effortless as Martin made winning seem in the past, there’s no reason he can’t catch fire now. Although it’s doubtful he will have the same caliber equipment as title-contending teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, there’s no doubt Hendrick Motorsports will be testing the latest technology with the savvy competitor. Martin has won at nine Chase tracks, including New Hampshire last fall. On intermediate tracks, which account for four races, he has six victories. With all the laps he’s logged over the years, Martin will loom large in the rear-view mirrors of Chase drivers.
Newman has spent the season battling back from DNFs in the first two races of the season. He flirted with the Chase field just once — after a winning the pole and finishing ninth at Charlotte. But since May, Newman has yet to find the momentum to remain in the top 12 in the point standings. Still, Newman is one of the most prolific qualifiers on the NASCAR tour. His average starting position of 10.9 is the third best in Sprint Cup behind Kurt Busch (9.6) and Jimmie Johnson (10.7). While Newman has started up front this season, the No. 39 Army Chevrolet hasn’t led nearly as many laps (31) in 2010 as it did last year (214). When it comes to the Chase races, Newman has won at five of the 10 venues, including Phoenix International Raceway in April. There’s not a track on the circuit where Newman won’t be a contender in the final 10.
This Earnhardt Ganassi racer convincingly won the top two events of the season — the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. Despite his satisfying reunion with team owner Chip Ganassi, McMurray’s No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s crew lacked the consistency to transfer to the Chase. However, when this team is on, look out. Since Ganassi scaled back, concentrated on two teams and enlisted Earnhardt Childress Racing horsepower, the organization’s qualifying has picked up considerably. And with the new car, starting up front is a huge advantage. McMurray has improved his average starting position from 22.6 in 2009 to 13.3 this year, bolstered by a career and series-high three poles. McMurray is the defending winner of the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. His first career victory came at Charlotte Motor Speedway and with as well as McMurray has run on intermediate tracks this season, he will be a threat at any of the four 1.5-milers in the Chase.