Friday June 19th, 2009

It is getting interesting, the race for the final spot in the Chase. After 15 events this season, three drivers -- David Reutimann, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kasey Kahne -- are all within 90 points of the 12th-place driver in the standings, Jeff Burton. So who will ultimately grab that 12th and final position that advances to the Chase? Let's break it down, driver by driver.

It's no secret that Richard Childress Racing is having a down season. Last year all three Childress drivers -- Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick -- made the Chase, but so far in 2009 this team has struggled, as Burton is the only RCR driver currently in the top 12. What have the problems been? For starters, the RCR Chevys simply can't match the straight-line speed of the Hendrick Chevys, the Roush-Fenway Fords, or the Gibbs Toyotas. This issue has persisted at RCR for more than two years now, and it doesn't appear that it will be fixed anytime soon.

On the track, the veteran Burton is solid, rarely making mistakes. But he won't dazzle you the way Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch will with a daring three-wide pass or a gutsy move through the corner. Burton only has one top-10 run in his past six starts, but he should be fast on Sunday in Sonoma, where he finished third in '07. Will Burton make the Chase? Well, not if he keeps running the way he has for the past month.

Reutimann, to me, has been the biggest surprise of the Cup season. A year after finishing 22nd in the standings, Reutimann is now in 13th, and trails Burton by only three points. The two biggest reasons for Reutimann's rise this season have been an influx of new personnel at Michael Waltrip Racing (competition director Steve Hallman, a veteran of Formula One's team McLaren, has been the key addition) and improved equipment. Reutimann is now clearly established as the top driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, and you can be sure that the team will pour all available resources into Reutimann's Toyota to get him into the Chase.

By his own admission, Reutimann is not a strong road course racer. But if he can author a top-15 run on Sunday and then another one at Watkins Glen (another road course) on Aug. 9, then he'll have an excellent shot at qualifying for his first Chase.

This has been something of a breakout season for Montoya. A former IndyCar and Formula One driver, Montoya has always excelled on the road courses, but this year he's proving that he can consistently finish in the top 10 on short tracks and intermediates. He has three top 10s in his last four starts and now he's in a position to qualify for his first Chase, as he trails Burton by only 43 points.

Montoya is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's only hope of doing anything of substance this season. When this team was formed in the offseason -- DEI merged with Ganassi Racing -- it boasted four cars. But due to lack of sponsorship, this team is now down to two cars. What's more, Martin Truex Jr. is running so poorly for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (he's 22nd in the points) that it's essentially a foregone conclusion in the garage that he'll leave the team at season's end and sign with Michael Waltrip Racing. So Montoya, clearly, is the flagship driver of this team.

Can he make the Chase? Well, the schedule sets up well for him. He's the best road-course driver in NASCAR, and he should be good for a top-five finish on Sunday at Sonoma and for another one at Watkins Glen. He also thrives at Indianapolis (July 26), where he finished second in 2007. But given the state of his team, I nonetheless think Montoya is a long shot to advance to the Chase.

Currently in 15th place in the standings, Kahne is in danger of missing the Chase for the third straight year. I spent some time recently with Kahne for an upcoming story in the magazine about the pressure in the sport to make the Chase, and it was obvious that Kahne is feeling it. But there are two reasons for him to be optimistic: one, he's now using the new Dodge engine, which boasts more horsepower than the old one; and two, he's one of the best drivers in the series on intermediate tracks, which means he should be able to rip off a few top-fives before the chase starts at places like Chicago, Pocono, and Michigan. But Kahne needs to catch fire soon, because -- and he knows this better than anyone -- time is already running out.

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