Tim Tuttle
Tuesday March 10th, 2009

Four races provide only a snapshot into Sprint Cup's regular season, but they could also be a indicator of the changing face of the Chase. Four drivers -- Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and David Reutimann -- who didn't make it last year are in the top-12 in points, pushing four -- Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- 2008 Chasers out.

It's safe to assume that Johnson, despite a relatively slow start that has him 13th in points, will make it and it's unlikely Reutimann will have the consistency in the long haul to stay in the top 12.

But the case for Busch, Kahne and Vickers can be made based upon how they've run in the last three races, all downforce or intermediate tracks. They've somehow, without testing, improved their competitiveness with regularity on the type of track that makes up, as my colleague Lars Anderson pointed out in his Monday column, a large chunk of the season.

Busch's dominant win at Atlanta was preceded by fourth at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and second at Las Vegas. He and crew chief Pat Tryson didn't just stumble across a setup that matched up with a particular Goodyear tire at Atlanta. Suddenly, the beleaguered Dodges have come to life. As a former (2004) Cup champion and Chaser in 2007, Busch knows how to get it done. All he needed was a machine that could, too.

Kahne has used 11th and 7th place finishes to move up to ninth in the points. He was a Chase contender last year before fading late in the regular season and ending up 14th. The organization he's driving for -- Richard Petty Motorsports -- has been substantially revamped, but he's got the same crew chief in Kenny Francis. What's important is he doesn't have the same Dodge, which has gone from a detriment to an asset. Whatever Busch, Tryson and the Penske team have figured out, Kahne and Francis can't be far behind. Kahne's been in the Chase, too, in that breakout 2006 season.

Vickers has rebounded from his controversial 39th at Daytona with three straight top-10s, 10th at California, eighth at Las Vegas and fifth at Atlanta, where he was running second and was a threat to Busch with four laps to go. A caution sent the leaders into the pits and his No. 83 Red Bull team got him out sixth after fumbling with a lug nut. It was a disappointment to at least not have the opportunity to race Busch for the win.

"We'd have either finished first, second or wrecked trying," Vickers said. "We obviously had the better car there at the end. Kurt [Busch] and I were running the same line, so it wasn't going to be easy to pass him. On the last lap, you can stick it off in there wide open to run it against the wall and hope for the best. You can't do it until then. Unfortunately, we just lost it there on the last pit stop."

Two factors have transformed Vickers into a bona fide threat to make the Chase this season: the growing maturity of him and the team and the addition of Ryan Pemberton as crew chief.

Vickers and Pemberton, who was crew chief for Reutimann at Michael Waltrip Racing last season, have connected at light speed. They've done it without the benefit of testing. Vickers had six top-10s last season and he's got three in four races so far this year. Those top-10s will deliver you to the promised land.

Vickers, only 25, is in his sixth full Cup season. When he won the Nationwide Series championship in 2003, he was 20 and become the youngest NASCAR national series champion in history.

In Cup, Vickers' best in the points was 15th with Hendrick Motorsports in 2006, the year before he asked to be released to join Red Bull's new Toyota team. Without those top-35 points that guarantee starting positions, Vickers ran in only 23 races in 2007. But last season, Vickers drove himself into the top-35 early, raced in all 36 races and ended up a respectable 19th in the points. He had three top-fives, including second at Pocono.

Certainly, Hamlin, Burton and Earnhardt Jr. have plenty of time to climb into the top 12. Several others, notably David Ragan and Martin Truex Jr., figure to make runs, too. But it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Busch, Kahne and Vickers in the Chase.

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