What do Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart all have in common? Yes, they all were preseason favorites to make the Chase, but they also have fewer top-five finishes in 2011 than Paul Menard. Combined. Sure, Menard is having a career year so far, but these four drivers haven’t even totaled two top fives after eight races. Ouch. For these guys, the off week could not have come at a better time.
Can McMurray’s season be called a disappointment so far, or is it more like back to reality for last year’s Daytona 500 winner? After being reunited with Chip Ganassi during the 2009-2010 offseason, the car owner he enjoyed his most success with from 2002 to 2005, McMurray had a banner year last season that included wins at the Brickyard and Charlotte along with his stunning 500 win. He failed to make the Chase, but many drivers would tell you they would take McMurray’s season over one with a Chase spot but no wins. His surprising run last year led many to believe that 2011 would be the year McMurray finally makes the Chase.
Instead, his season is shaping up to be more like the ones he had with Jack Roush. After eight races, his seventh place run at Martinsville has been by far his best. After that, it was an 18th in the season opener at Daytona, his only other top 20 on the year. He sits just 23rd in the standings; just one driver has come from outside the top 20 in points this late in the year to make the Chase (Kenseth in 2005 when he was 28th after eight races). If McMurray has hopes of making the Chase this year, he will need to duplicate his magic from 2010 and pick up some wins.
After Richard Childress Racing expanded to four teams over the winter, there was speculation as to whether the organization could maintain the success they saw with just three teams last year. RCR had four teams in 2009, and it was a complete disaster. However, it does not look like that will be the same case this year; Kevin Harvick has already won two races, Clint Bowyer is coming on strong after a slow start, and, as already mentioned, Menard is having a career year. In fact, it could be argued Childress is having one of its best years as a multi-car organization.
The weak link? Burton and the No. 31 team. Their best finish this year was an 11th-place effort at Texas two weeks ago, but the normally consistent Burton has just one other top-15 finish in 2011. If you don’t include the restrictor-plate races where anybody can lead a lap, Burton hasn’t led a single lap for the year. Bad luck has played a part for sure, but he hasn’t looked as competitive as his three teammates. However, there is some good news: Despite the poor start, Burton and sponsor Caterpillar re-signed with RCR this week, which indicates Childress and the sponsor know the team can turn it around.
I briefly touched on Hamlin last week, but here is a more in-depth review. He is starting to become known as a slow starter. He won at Martinsville and Texas early last year, but didn’t maintain a solid level of consistency until the Chase. In 2009, all four of his wins came in the second half of the season. With that said, it is still early to hit the panic button. The team’s performance does appear to be off from last year, however.
You can hear it when Hamlin talks and you can see it out on the racetrack. At this point last year, he had already recovered from his slow start with strong finishes that made up for some mediocre finishes. His 2011 struggles are a mystery; whether it is Toyota as a whole (teammate Kyle Busch is the only driver to have been competitive for an entire race), or if the pain from last year’s championship defeat (or his knee surgery) still lingers, Hamlin must get going soon. Otherwise, he will be yet another victim of the runner up curse.
Stewart is the most interesting case. He started out great and was even leading the points standings after Las Vegas last month. The first three races he was in contention to win every race and had the highest average running position out of every driver. Then came the first bye week and it has been like a whole different season for Stewart.
There was bad luck at Texas – a pit-road speeding penalty along with running out of gas cost him a potential victory – and at Auto Club where late-race restarts shuffled him outside the top 10. Had these two races been different, he would have at least 20 more points and Stewart would not have even made this list.
Where Stewart has been off has been at the short tracks (and yes Talladega, but it is hard to gauge his performance as he admittedly rode in the back the first 400 miles) where he wasn’t even noticed. Through all the tough luck and his struggles at some of the tracks, Stewart still sits 12th in points. Of these four drivers, Stewart has the least reason to worry as he has been the most competitive, but his team has to figure out its short-track program and Stewart might want to start carrying a rabbit’s foot. As Richmond is the next track on the schedule, we will quickly find out whether the bye week helped Stewart and the No. 14 team.
The first off week didn’t help any of the aforementioned teams; in fact it looks to have hurt Stewart and Hamlin. Maybe one more bye week can halt the downward spirals these four men are in. One thing is for sure; now with two wildcard spots reserved for drivers outside the top 10 inconsistency doesn’t hurt as much anymore.
Should McMurray, Burton, Hamlin and Stewart be able to manage a win before the second Richmond race, that may be all they need to race for the championship. It is still early and there is plenty of time to get into the Chase the old-fashioned way. However, with the exception of Stewart, that doesn’t seem likely. Expect to see some risky pit calls from the crew chiefs during the summer months.
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