Tom Bowles
Thursday March 26th, 2009

Starting this week, NASCAR will use its 2009 version of owner points to determine who's locked into the starting lineup. It's a reminder we've been through enough of the regular season -- nearly 20 percent -- to start sorting out pretenders from contenders.

Indeed, trends have already developed that are expected to play out in full over the rest of the year. Don't believe the first month makes a difference? History shows us that nine of the top 12 drivers as of now will make the Chase (over 75% since 2004), and that an average of just two cars outside the top 35 will ever make it back in this season.

No question, it's a perfect time to step back and evaluate the state of the Cup Series. With five races down, here's five big stories to keep an eye on, storylines that should play out all the way through the conclusion of Homestead in November:

This offseason, we were sold on a championship battle for the ages: Jimmie Johnson vs Carl Edwards part II. But last season's 1-2 punch in the Chase is off to a slow start, going 0-for-5 on Victory Lane while slumping to fifth and ninth in the standings, respectively.

In their place, two drivers seeking redemption. Kyle Busch dominated the regular season last year, winning eight times and building a 200-point lead over his closest competition. But once the Chase heated up, Busch flamed out, and his No. 18 went winless in the playoffs while slumping to 10th.

Determined to put that ugly past behind him, Busch came out firing on all cylinders in 2009, earning five wins and three poles across NASCAR's top three divisions (Cup, Nationwide, Trucks). With 517 laps led in the Cup Series, Busch has almost doubled the total of second-place Johnson (265) and would easily be leading the points if not for a Daytona 500 wreck that took him from a possible win to 41st.

Instead, that honor goes to Jeff Gordon. The four-time champ had been reduced to an afterthought at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, going winless for the first time since '93 while teammates Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran circles around him. When Gordon spoke up in Daytona about wanting a role at HMS post-retirement, insiders wondered how much longer the new father would have the desire to keep going (Gordon has a lifetime contract, but sponsor DuPont is signed only through the end of 2010).

But if Gordon's time really is running out, he's determined to go out on top. The 37-year-old changed his workout routine in the offseason, returning more physically fit and mentally focused than he's been in years. Jumping out to a 76-point lead in the standings, Gordon's four top 10s lead all drivers, and he has yet to finish a race lower than 13th. While the victory drought continues (up to 46 races, the longest of his career) it's now a matter of when, not if, the No. 24 rolls back to Victory Lane.

All indications are the regular season battle will come down to these two drivers. Can the wily veteran use a string of top-10s to hold off the hard-charging Busch? Or will Busch dominate to the point he'll threaten Gordon's modern era record of 13 wins?

Last season, all 12 spots in the Chase were filled by just four teams: Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, and Childress, who combined to win 32 of 36 races. With no offseason testing to level the playing field and Childress expanding to a fourth car, you'd expect them to dominate the playoff Chase once more, right?

Wrong.

Five races in, there are cracks in the foundation of several of those big teams. Childress cars have combined to lead just 79 laps, putting just two of their four teams in the top 12. Ditto for Hendrick Motorsports, which has more engine failures (three) in the first month than it had in all of 2008. And Gibbs' once-vaunted No. 20 has struggled with rookie Joey Logano. Still without a top-10 finish, they've struggled to simply hold on to a locked-in qualifying spot in the 43-car field each week.

With so many off the pace, other teams are taking a stab at the top 12. Penske Racing's Kurt Busch won Atlanta and is second in the standings after enduring, arguably, the worst season of his career in 2008. Kasey Kahne is right behind him, sixth in points for RPM despite growing rumors of financial trouble for owner George Gillett.

But perhaps the most surprising Chase drivers right now are Tony Stewart and David Reutimann (seventh and 11th, respectively). Stewart's move to his own team is well-documented, but no one expected this type of early success at Stewart-Haas from a car that was 43rd in owner points with several drivers behind the wheel in 2008.

As for Reutimann, the departure of major sponsor UPS in the offseason almost left him on the sidelines altogether. It took owner Michael Waltrip begging longtime sponsor Aaron's to get Reutimann the funding he needed. In hindsight, that company may have the sponsorship steal of 2009, as Reutimann has four top 15s in five starts while jumping out to 11th in the standings. As for UPS' new driver, David Ragan? He's 26th in points with just one lead lap finish to date.

Even just outside the Chase, other teams nip at the heels of the Big Four. A.J. Allmendinger has yet to put together sponsorship for the full season (more on that in a minute), but his No. 44 RPM Dodge has charged to 16th in points on the strength of a third place finish in the Daytona 500. Brian Vickers (three top 10s for Red Bull Racing), Juan Pablo Montoya (Earnhardt Ganassi's best), and Elliott Sadler (RPM) are among the drivers within striking distance. Will these teams keep up the pace, or will struggling drivers within the Big Four like Mark Martin (31st) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (19th) get it together? It'll be interesting to watch over the next few months.

With the economy reducing the size of the Sprint Cup field, it's given new owners and single-car teams the opportunity to establish a foothold in the series. Most have struggled, but a few appear poised to make a breakthrough. TRG Motorsports has been the most successful (look for a more extensive profile next Thursday), charging into the top 35 in owner points despite missing the Daytona 500. Without a full-time sponsor and running on a shoestring budget, TRG has finished as high as 14th with former Yates Racing driver David Gilliland.

Other small-time operations have found success in scaling back to a part-time schedule. Furniture Row Racing's No. 78 has run just twice this season, but has an average finish of 20th with sophomore sensation Regan Smith. And the legendary Wood Brothers No. 21 posted the fifth-fastest time trial speed at Daytona with 53-year-old Bill Elliott looking strong in starts there and at Atlanta in March. While these teams aren't contending for wins, they're at least making their presence felt on race weekends for the first time in several years -- reminding everyone the single-car team can still survive under the right circumstances.

Yet for every team that's trying to gain a foothold in the series, there are three hanging on for dear life. With several full-time teams folding in the offseason, the Cup Series has struggled to have 43 fully-funded cars in the field. The No. 28 of Yates Racing was the latest victim, shutting down after Bristol despite two top-20 finishes from driver Travis Kvapil. EGR's No. 8 will likely be next; the team is scheduled to shut down after Texas in April unless someone steps up to back Aric Almirola. With over 40 wins between them, those two cars continue a troubling trend of legendary teams biting the dust. Even successful teams have struggled to get the backing they need, with Allmendinger's No. 44 only guaranteed a place on the track through the end of May.

While these cars struggle to stay afloat, new unsponsored entries have stepped in to keep the field at 43. But not all of them are there to compete. Instead, the dreaded "start and park" in NASCAR's lower series has reappeared at its top level, with several teams at the back of the pack qualifying for races only to pull out in the first few laps to collect a check.

In particular, the No. 66 of Prism Motorsports stands out, with driver Dave Blaney pulling it in before the 100-lap mark in each of his three starts. Running in the top 10 at Bristol, Blaney was turning heads before getting tapped from behind and pulling a 360. His car owner's response? Ordering Blaney to pull in, pronto, because the risk of tearing up equipment was just too great.

It's gotten to the point where teams are sacrificing competition in the name of collecting a check. For a sport accused of being too "cookie cutter" in recent years, that can't be good.

With the economy causing hardship amongst NASCAR's blue-collar fan base, fan attendance is down noticeably this season. Races at Fontana and Atlanta had crowds at less than three-quarters capacity, and even crown jewels at Daytona and Bristol have struggled to sell out.

With so many people staying home, you'd think TV ratings would be through the roof. But that's not the case. All races have shown a decrease in viewership this season, with ratings off 11 percent overall through the first five races. The numbers prove NASCAR's problems run deeper than just the economic downturn. Criticism runs rampant over the new car, which has made passing nearly impossible at the front of the pack. Lead changes have been reduced from 24 through the first five races in 2006 -- the last full season with the old car design -- to just 14 this year.

Will continued pressure by teams and drivers force the sport to make significant changes in the face of these troubling trends? That may be the most interesting story to follow in the coming weeks and months.

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