Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: It’s Not All About the Top 12 – 10 Wildcard Storylines to Watch in NASCAR’s Chase

For the past 26 weeks, we’ve essentially conducted a form of “Prelude to the Chase,” with drivers jockeying to be in the all-important 12 available spots post-checkers at the second Richmond race. Now, with the field set, you can pretty much guarantee that a quick glance at the Jayski article/links page will show 99.9% of stories are all about the hallowed NASCAR playoff format.

So with that in mind, and always enjoying plowing a lone furrow, I thought I’d take a look this week at some of the non-Chase stories that bear watching. Yes, folks, there really are some, despite what you might read to the contrary. As ever, we start with the sport’s seven-time Most Popular Driver.

Can Dale Junior Get Even Worse This Year?

What a disastrous season it’s been for Dale Earnhardt Jr. After a disappointing 2009, it seemed hard to fathom 2010 would be worse and yet… here we are, a 34th-place finish and black eye from Richmond setting the stage. Where Junior goes from here is an interesting question (that resonates far beyond just the form of one driver, to be fair) and with team principal Rick Hendrick stating crew chief Lance McGrew is here to stay, what the No. 88 mob do these last 10 races will be absolutely critical.

For more on ol’ June Bug, check out Tom Bowles’s excellent SI piece on the topic.

Can Mark Martin Right the Ship and Head into 2011 in 2009 Form?

After five wins and a second-place finish in 2009, critics and fans alike expected more of the same (and maybe even better) in 2010 for the evergreen Mark Martin. Sadly, that hasn’t proved to be the case, and for much of the season Martin has floundered – well off the pace and without any serious chances at picking up a race win. Those five victories from a year ago have dissolved into five top-five finishes over this stretch of 26 races, leaving Hendrick’s once No. 2 program a shell of its former self.

With only one more year until the arrival of Kasey Kahne, 2011 looks like Martin’s last and final try at landing the big prize that has eluded him his entire career.

Can Juan Pablo Montoya Win on an Oval?

This time last year, Juan Pablo Montoya headed into his first Chase without a particularly great weight of expectation on his short shoulders. But three third-place and two fourth-place finishes in the first six races announced the short-fused Colombian as a genuine title contender. This year, his EGR machines have had the speed but a combination of miscues, mistakes and sheer bad luck have seen him miss out on a second straight Chase.

With nothing else to play for, Montoya can shoot all out for a first oval victory and a second win on the season (Watkins Glen being the other.) No one else is a bigger wildcard heading into the playoffs.

What Happens to Elliott Sadler Next Year?

With just six top 10s in the last 62 races, it’s fair to say Elliott Sadler is going through a terrible streak. In fact, it’s got so bad he appears to start each race a lap down. But the Truck Series victory at Pocono (in the inaugural race at the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped circuit) has shown the popular veteran that driving outside of the Sprint Cup carnival might be the answer. With precious few (if any) seats available, Sadler may need to mix and match next year. These last 10 races will be critical, then, for his future job opportunities.

Can Jamie Mac Win Another Big Race?

What a difference one year makes. Who would have guessed the likable Jamie McMurray would turn around his career in such an impressive way? Yes, he failed to make the Chase, but the fact is he probably doesn’t really care. And why should he when he can go home and polish those Daytona 500 and Brickyard trophies? I’m intrigued to see if he can add another big victory (I’m thinking Talladega) to really put a cherry on top of a great season – Chase or otherwise.

Can Brad Pull Off an Elusive Top 10?

For all the hype – and the controversy – that has surrounded the “no quarter asked; no quarter given” Penske racer, it’s worth noting that he has yet to score so much as a solitary top 10 in Sprint Cup. No question, Brad Keselowski can wheel a racecar, but it’s worth noting the much maligned E-Sad has a top 10 this year, as does David Ragan. And speaking of Ragan…

Can David Ragan Do Anything? Bueller… Bueller…

After a solid sophomore season (six top-fives, 14 top-10s) in 2008, the Unadilla, Ga. native has regressed hugely, notching just three top-10 efforts and 17 total laps led in the last 62 races. Given the relative strength of his fellow Roush Fenway racers, it’s fair to say Ragan has become very much the poster child for failure. Simply put, despite his relative youth, the driver can’t afford many more terrible seasons; a solid final 10 races would make a big difference headed into a make-or-break year.

Whither Red Bull?

OK, let me see if I can get this straight; Red Bull will have two or possibly three entries at the Cup level in 2011. One will certainly be Kahne, and you’d figure Brian Vickers would get his seat back, so where does that leave Scott Speed – who started off 2010 well, dyed his hair blue and then sank like a stone? Then there’s the curious case of Mattias Ekstrom, who acquitted himself rather well at Richmond. This little situation should be interesting to watch these last ten races.

Is This the End for Sam Hornish?

Penske Racing says Sam Hornish Jr. will return for the 2011 season, but with Mobil 1 not in the sponsor mix, it’s hard to see how much mediocrity the captain can put up with. Don’t get me wrong, I like the kid from Defiance, Ohio (again, such a great name for a hometown of a racecar driver), but the simple fact is he’s not cutting the mustard – without a top-10 finish to his credit all year.

Hornish only needs to look at Dario Franchitti’s successful return to open-wheel to know it’s a viable option – especially with Verizon’s news they’re going to “increase their commitment” to the Penske program next season. As I say, these last 10 races might be pivotal in Hornish’s stock car career.

Which Non-Chaser Will Ruin Things for a Chase Participant?

Although it’s not written in stone, it’s fair to say a non-Chaser will wreck the chances of one of the 12 Chase qualifiers with an ill-advised move or a momentary poor decision. If I were a betting man, I’d guess Hornish would be up there (a la Texas and Jimmie Johnson in the 2010 Chase). As always, it should be fun to watch.

About the author


Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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