Tom Bowles
Thursday August 27th, 2009

Editor's Note: This column was written at the end of August, but drivers' positions in the standings are current entering Richmond this week.

Heading into the final off-week of the season, Chase bubble teams are hitting overdrive as they look for the edge that'll push them into the top 12.

As these drivers focus on the future, we'll take a look at the past -- at what they could have done differently, and how they could have avoided the bubble. Here's a quick look at each man's weak spot this season, and why it could leave him on the outside looking in after Atlanta and Richmond:

Carl Edwards. 5th in points, 105 ahead of 13th. The One That Got Away: Talladega. It was the last lap at a restrictor plate race, and Edwards had just snookered the field when his two-car draft with Brad Keselowski blew by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Ryan Newman. It looked like the driver of the No. 99 had his first win of the season in the bag ... until Keselowski stuck his nose underneath him off turn 4. The resulting flip seen 'round the world left eight spectators hurt, the tri-oval a mangled mess of debris, and Edwards reaching the finish line by foot -- a wild ending to a 24th-place finish that should have been so much more. Winless ever since, and after a faulty oil cooler in Atlanta, those 100 points could really come in handy right about now...

Kasey Kahne. 6th in points, 96 ahead of 13th. The Ones That Got Away: Restrictor Plate Races. Should Kahne squeak into the Chase, I'd bet the farm on a solid performance at Talladega. While his three other teammates finished in the top 10 in this year's Daytona 500, Kahne was busy wrecking with Aric Almirola en route to a 29th-place finish, the start of a 3-for-3 debacle in which the Budweiser Dodge was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At Talladega, he was involved in the Big One (leading to a 36th-place finish), while Daytona ended with Kyle Busch's rear bumper smashing into his windshield. The Debbie Downer's trio of races gets worse when you consider he was 7th, 23rd, and 7th in those same events last year, a difference of 147 points, which, if added to his '09 total, would leave him a comfortable sixth in the standings. Instead, Kahne's left hoping to make some Atlanta magic, or else. Keep in mind, he had the worst finish of all the bubble contenders (29th) at Richmond in May.

Kurt Busch. 7th in points, 95 ahead of 13th. The Ones That Got Away: Michigan, Atlanta. All the way up to early August, Busch was never part of the bubble talk after safely settling in to about 4th in points. But after two wrecks in four weeks, the No. 2 car is suddenly as vulnerable as ever heading to Richmond Saturday night. Both times, the driver had no one to blame but himself as self-induced spins left the Miller Lite Dodge a mangled mess after running in the top 10 in both races. No wonder why he threw his HANS Device in anger after his latest wreck on Sunday night...

Juan Pablo Montoya. 8th in points, 88 ahead of 13th. The One That Got Away: Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Without question, Montoya's winless season was exemplified by Indy, a race he dominated only to see the trophy taken away by a penalty for speeding on pit road. Montoya says he never saw a built-in red light around his tachometer that indicated he was over the limit, but his crew members might tell you differently.

Looking for an extra tenth of a second on pit road when he already had a lead of four seconds was a serious mental mistake for a veteran driver who merely needed to play it safe to win. After a pass-through penalty under green, the Colombian made a furious comeback to make it back to 11th place. But the 55 points he lost would have been helpful down the road, particularly since his track record at Richmond is worse than most of the other contenders (just one top 10 and an average finish of 27.8 in five starts).

Ryan Newman. 9th in points, 81 ahead of 13th. The One That Got Away: The Daytona 500. The defending champ of the race, Newman had high hopes despite having switched teams in the offseason, from Penske Racing's No. 12 to the unseasoned No. 39 of Stewart-Haas Racing. He made a horrific first impression, wrecking in the Gatorade Duels and blowing a right-rear tire in final practice -- taking out teammate and car owner Tony Stewart in the process. By race time, Newman wasn't even driving his own car, forced into Stewart's re-painted backup for the exhibition Bud Shootout.

Starting from the rear, he never had the necessary speed to contend, and spent most of the day languishing at the back of the pack in his Chevy. Then, an ordinary pit stop turned disastrous when the jack dropped on a pit stop, leaving the crew scrambling to lift the car back up to change tires. Newman finished two laps down in 36th, a 135-point differential from 2008. He followed up that performance with three straight finishes outside the top 20. All things considered, it's a small miracle this team is as high in points as it is.

Mark Martin. 10th in points, 69 ahead of 13th. The Ones That Got Away: Road Courses. Most people will look to Martin's last-lap fuel mileage failure at Michigan two weeks ago as the reason he's on the bubble. There's no question that mistake could haunt crew chief Alan Gustafson for years if the four-win team misses the Chase. But the 80 points they lost at Michigan could easily be rivaled by two dismal performances at Infineon and Watkins Glen.

Regarded as one of the sport's best road course racers (he won three straight at the Glen in the mid-'90s), Martin had high hopes at those places despite never having run them with NASCAR's new car. Yet finishes of 35th and 23rd were part of a larger trend in which Hendrick drivers combined for just two top-10 finishes in eight starts on road courses. Maybe the sport's biggest organization didn't focus much on turning right, since there's no road course involved in the Chase for a sixth straight year. But rest assured it'll be taking a second look if Martin ends up missing the playoffs because of them.

Greg Biffle. 11th in points, 68 ahead of 13th. The One That Got Away: Michigan, June. Without a win in NASCAR's regular season in three years, the 2008 Chase Cinderella nearly changed that with a strong run in the Irish Hills. After running in the top 5 all day, Biffle took the lead with 46 laps to go and had all but Jimmie Johnson beaten. Over the final 100 miles, the two engaged in a furious battle up front, with the No. 48 finally pulling ahead for good with six laps left. Over the course of the duel, however, the two drivers forgot one small detail: fuel.

With both cars struggling to get the gas mileage they needed, running in overdrive caused them to run out over the final two laps. That handed the victory to Mark Martin while Biffle settled for fifth. Sure, that's only 40 points in the grand scheme of things, but considering the team followed that race with four straight runs of 18th or worse, it was the type of momentum killer that turns good times back into a pumpkin.

Matt Kenseth. 12th in points, 20 ahead of 13th. The One That Got Away: Las Vegas. After starting the year 2-for-2, Kenseth looked like the driver best-positioned to challenge Jimmie Johnson's in his quest for a fourth straight title. But after a miserable qualifying run at Las Vegas (40th), Kenseth saw his engine go sour after only six laps. Finishing dead last, Kenseth had to watch in agony as his three teammates came home no worse than 17th. Considering his track record in Sin City, he shouldn't have finished worse than 15th, a result that would've given him both the points and momentum needed to stave off the slump he's endured since.

Brian Vickers. 13th in points, 20 behind 12th. The One That Got Away: The Daytona 500. The last driver with a realistic shot at the Chase (Clint Bowyer is 112 behind and needs serious help) looked like he'd never come close after a devastating first race of the year. In the accident still debated at water coolers everywhere, NASCAR's latest up-and-coming star made contact with its Most Popular Driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) on a restart as the two battled to be the first car one lap down. With lapped cars still restarting in front of the field at that point, the duo's resulting wreck took out nine cars and jumpstarted discussion on what would eventually become the double-file restart rule. Too damaged to continue in the race, Vickers wound up 39th and likely lost about 50 points on the day. Of course, if he only had those now it'd be Kenseth and not him on the outside looking in. But as all these drivers know all too well, looking back on your past does nothing to change the final outcome.

Kyle Busch. 14th in points, 37 behind 12th. The One That Got Away: Daytona (both times). While Busch has struggled mightily at intermediate tracks this season, it's Daytona Beach that's given him the biggest headache. In February, he was the victim of the Brian Vickers-Dale Earnhardt Jr. wreck after leading the most laps. But Daytona in July was no better. The second time around, he made a masterful pass of Stewart heading to the white-flag lap, only to have an ill-timed block leave him heading for the outside wall coming to the checkered. Dropping from 1st to 14th, he left with a battered race car, a bitter attitude and no momentum in the Cup Series throughout July. He followed up that run with finishes of 33rd at Chicagoland and 38th at Indianapolis to put himself in the hole he's in now.

Note: David Reutimann in 15th is mathematically alive, but at 132 points behind 12th place is all but assured of missing the playoffs.

Rain tires in Montreal again? For those of you who loved stock cars running in a raging downpour in Canada last year, the forecast calls for at least a 30 percent chance of rain on Sunday in what could be a second straight year of Carl Edwards using a squeegee to see in front of him. It's not exactly what most fans pay to see, but with foreign travel creating a logistical nightmare for NASCAR, it's their only option to get the race in for this special Nationwide Series event.

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With Danica bailing on NASCAR and Brad Keselowski's move to Penske keeping Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide Series, the sport is currently faced with an interesting scenario for Sprint Cup next year: no rookies. You have to go back to 1992 to find the last time no freshmen had a full-time ride (Jimmy Hensley eventually replaced another driver and went on to win the award), but unless there's a big Silly Season surprise, that's what we're looking at for 2010.

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