Tom Bowles
Thursday August 20th, 2009

With the race for the Chase heating up, media attention has understandably shifted to the 15 or so men fighting for a dozen playoff spots. But before the playoff push overwhelms the rest of the field, there are a handful of others we need to salute. They may not be competing for this season-ending trophy, but by this time next year, they could be in the thick of the Chase hunt.

Joey Logano. Back in the Spring, the buzz inside the garage centered around when the 19-year-old rookie would be released, not revered. With just one top-20 finish by Logano in the first eight races, NASCAR's testing ban devastated the rookie's adjustment to the bulkier, harder-to-handle Car of Tomorrow early on. After Logano was brought up a year early after Tony Stewart's unexpected departure, there was even talk the rookie would go back to the Nationwide Series full-time at mid-year while a veteran temporarily filled the seat of the No. 20.

But since a ninth-place finish at Talladega in April, "Sliced Bread" has silenced replacement talk while slicing up the competition. He's scored five top 10s in the past four months -- more than famous teammate Kyle Busch during that span -- while scoring an upset win at New Hampshire. In the process, he's worked himself from 35th to 19th in points, with an outside shot of finishing the year in the top 15. Such a sudden turnaround has turned the Rookie of the Year race into a runaway over Scott Speed.

As Logano returns to tracks a second time down the stretch, don't be surprised to see this kid play the role of spoiler for two reasons. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli can now work off the driver's own notes rather than those of Tony Stewart, which helps get setups dialed in quicker at the track. Combine that with the calm, confident demeanor behind the wheel of a driver who knows he belongs in Cup, and there's nowhere to go but up heading into 2010.

David Reutimann. Sitting 121 points behind 12th with three races left, Reutimann's dream of making the Chase is all but tabled for 2009. But his failure to crack the top 12 shouldn't take away from what's been a dream season at Michael Waltrip Racing. In January, there wasn't even full sponsorship for the No. 00 car, and Waltrip went to Aaron's owner Ken Butler and begged the company to add enough money to run a full season. Without it, his top talent would have likely left for greener pastures or run just 18 races.

Well, you wonder how UPS feels about its decision to leave now, with Reutimann scoring four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes in a career year. Peaking with a rain-shortened win in this year's Coca-Cola 600, he's responsible for the team's first victory in three seasons of Cup Series competition and its subsequent rise to legitimate weekly contender. In contrast, David Ragan (who UPS sponsored instead) has endured a miserable year at RFR, notching just one top-10 run.

Sam Hornish, Jr. After failing to qualify at the season-ending race at Homestead, Hornish lost out in the Rookie of the Year race to Regan Smith, raising questions about whether the IRL convert would even stick around for a second season. But after taking his lumps transitioning to NASCAR's top series, Roger Penske's pet project has finally found himself a home in stock cars. Perhaps the best example of how far he's come is the race at Pocono this August, where he scored a career-best fourth-place finish. After adding a fifth-place at Michigan last Sunday, Hornish now has two top 5s in the past three weeks while bolstering a resume that's seen a nine-spot improvement in the standings (from 35th to 26th).

Looking ahead, Penske offers stable support from primary sponsor Mobil 1, and could very well become the only Cup team under the Dodge banner in 2010 with the departure of Richard Petty Motorsports. That should consolidate and increase support of the program, which already has one driver in the Chase this year (Kurt Busch) and will revamp the No. 12 in the offseason to take its program to the next level. For Hornish to make a serious run at the playoffs, though, he needs to drop a nasty habit of crashing out: he's failed to finish four of 23 races this year due to wrecks.

Marcos Ambrose. While not technically a candidate for Rookie of the Year after running too many races in 2008, the Tasmanian could have given Logano a run for his money. With six top-10 finishes in 23 starts, he's surged to 17th in the standings and would be a Chase contender if not for a handful of engine problems taking him out of two of the first seven races.

Particularly strong on the road courses, he almost scored his first career win at Watkins Glen two weeks ago before settling for second behind Tony Stewart. But that's not the only skill he's mastered quickly while adjusting to Cup; he finished fourth and sixth at the restrictor plate races of Talladega and Daytona, which are usually the kiss of death for first-year drivers.

Ambrose is locked up with JTG Daugherty Racing (which works right out of Michael Waltrip Racing's shop) through 2010, and the team is working on a long-term deal. Intermediate tracks remain the lone weakness: he has yet to score a top-10 finish on a track one to two miles in length.

Regan Smith / Brad Keselowski. These two don't have the resources or the schedule to contend for the Chase, but both have acquitted themselves well in partial seasons. Smith doesn't have a top-10 finish, but has taken his single-car, underfunded Furniture Row team to a handful of top 15s while finishing every race on the schedule. The improvement has been so dramatic, the organization has actually found enough sponsorship to bounce back to a full-time schedule in 2010 with Smith behind the wheel. It's actually the first organization we've heard of this year to make that increase.

Meanwhile, Keselowski scored the upset victory of the year at Talladega, driving a single-car effort at Phoenix Racing that hadn't won in nearly two decades of Cup competition. While the car was a Hendrick chassis, it came without the millions in engineering and technical support that usually accompany any such cars at HMS.

The pseudo-rookie won in just his fifth career start with the type of moves you'd see from a grizzled veteran. After adding two other top-10 finishes to his resume, Keselowski has become the hottest free agent of 2009 as he weighs offers from Hendrick, Penske, and others to make a jump to the Cup Series full-time next year.

What he'll do is anybody's guess (although I keep hearing Penske as the number one option), but no matter what, expect him to be in the hunt for the top 12 come next August.

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