Tom Bowles
Thursday November 12th, 2009

With two races left, all eyes are focused on the two-man battle between Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin for the Sprint Cup. But let's not forget that there are 41 other drivers and teams looking to end the season on a high note. Yes, holding up the year-end trophy is a beautiful thing, but those who can't still want to finish the year smiling, come Homestead.

Here's a look at some important goals beyond the championship as the 2009 NASCAR season winds down.

What's at Stake: Finishing in the top 20 in points

After Junior ran out of fuel at Texas, his PR man Mike Davis tweeted, "[The] season has become laughable in an unfunny way."

He's right; even in races where the No. 88 seems a lock for a top-10 finish, a wreck, mechanical failure or poor pit strategy pops up out of nowhere to send Junior straight to the sidelines. Now, not only does Junior sit winless with two races left, but also he's on tap for the worst points finish of his 10-year career (he was 19th in 2007). Sitting 23rd in the standings, he needs to close a 286-point gap on Casey Mears to simply finish inside the top 20. What's worse, one more DNF would put Junior outside the top 25 and behind Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger and Martin Truex, the ultimate embarrassment for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver.

What's at Stake: Leading a lap, finishing in the top 25 in points

It's been a difficult fall for Allmendinger, who put his RPM ride in jeopardy with an embarrassing DWI arrest the end of October. On the track, it's been a bit of a roller coaster season, with five top-10 finishes, which leaves him 25th in the standings and eight points ahead of Truex. Striving for 25th may seem trivial, but with the Sprint Cup point fund extending to just the top-25 point finishers each season, it's an important achievement to work towards -- especially for a team setting new goals as it transitions to Ford Fusions for the final two weeks.

While the 'Dinger tries to seal the deal on his bonus, he could really help himself by running up front. Allmendinger is the only driver this season who's run every race without leading a lap, which hasn't been done since Kenny Wallace in 2003. In fact, no one's finished this high in the standings without one lap led since Terry Labonte, who was 23rd in points in 2001.

What's at Stake: Winning for the seventh straight year

The Biff has quietly established himself as one of the more consistent drivers on the NASCAR circuit; he's visited Victory Lane in each of his six full-time seasons on tour. But this year, a series of tough luck finishes has put that streak in jeopardy. Pit road problems have plagued his team all season, and loose lugnuts and sloppy strategy left them unable to capitalize on fast cars at Texas and Darlington this Spring. But the biggest disappointment came at Michigan in June, when Biffle led on the white-flag lap only to run out of fuel on the backstretch, handing the win to former teammate Mark Martin.

Still, there's hope for a team that's currently 7th in the Chase. Biffle has a "feast or famine" record at the season finale at Homestead, setting a record with three wins in seven career starts, while running 13th or worse in the other four. Expect more of the same this year as he engages in a desperate bid to keep his streak alive.

What's at Stake: Winning a race

Biffle is not the only standout driver to be shut out of Victory Lane. Four Chasers remain winless heading to Phoenix, the highest number since the playoff format began in 2004. Edwards is perhaps the most disappointing, going from a season-high nine wins in 2008 to none this year.

"We can do it," a confident Edwards says in his latest diary entry (coming Nov. 13 on SI.com), referring to his bid to turn a disappointing Chase around with a win. "The biggest thing to me is to finish the season strong as a team. Jamie [McMurray] winning at Talladega, that shows me that we can do it, and I believe we will."

Between Newman, Montoya and Edwards, the latter has the best shot as Homestead's defending champ. Not only have Newman and Montoya been shut out at the final two tracks on the schedule, but also Montoya has yet to win at an oval track during his Cup career.

(Casey Mears, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer)

What's at Stake: Winning at least one race

Ever since a young Dale Earnhardt slid behind the wheel of his No. 3 car in 1984, car owner Richard Childress has only been shut out of Victory Lane twice -- in 1997 and in 2004. Yet, during a year in which Childress' expansion to a four-car team was supposed to pay major dividends, they've gone winless, and no one in the fleet was even good enough to make the Chase. While his teams are known for keeping his cars in one piece, they had six DNFs this season, which is more than the last two years combined. RCR's been taking bullets from all sides: Harvick is poised to leave at the end of 2010, Jack Daniel's is gone after this year, and a reported $10 million in support went down the drain with GM's bankruptcy.

On the track, that turmoil's translated into an inability to do what Burton stresses so often: "Put yourself in position to win." With just 244 laps led among four cars, it's their lowest season total since 1982 -- when the team owned just one.

But hope springs eternal in the Childress camp for the final two races. They've collected 10 top-10 finishes in the last eight weeks, and Phoenix is historically one of the best tracks for Burton and Harvick. A new crew chief/driver pairing of Burton and Todd Berrier has been particularly successful, and the No. 31 car recently scored its first back-to-back top-10 finish since May.

"He's smart," Berrier says of his new, veteran driver. "He does think a lot, and if he's looking for something I think he can pretty well explain it. Sometimes, too much information is better than none."

Over the final two weeks, you can bet that no amount of effort will be too much -- this old school organization is focused on erasing its goose egg before the season is out.

-- Dave Rogers, welcome to the bigs. In your first race as crew chief for the No. 18 car, your driver ran out of gas and then ran away with no comment, leaving you to handle the throng of reporters asking why things went wrong. That may not be the definition of "teamwork" for most people ... but that's what you get with Kyle Busch.

-- Roger Penske's refusal to release "lame duck" crew chief Pat Tryson earned Kurt Busch a second win and a likely top-5 finish in the points. But with a poor Silly Season list of head wrenches available, would they have been better served to pull a trial run with an internal candidate to see if the chemistry's there for 2010? It's a short-term success story with long-term risk if the No. 2 stumbles out of the blocks next Spring.

-- How tough is it in the Silly Season market these days? Four drivers are fighting tooth and nail for a ride that may not even run all 36 races the distance in 2010. David Gilliland, David Stremme, Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson are the top four candidates to run full-time for the No. 09 team of Phoenix Racing, which will likely lose Hendrick support after the season. My money's on Gilliland to get the seat -- he's a strong qualifier and exactly what the team needs next year.

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