Tom Bowles
Thursday April 8th, 2010

Two months into NASCAR 2010 and it's simply impossible to predict who'll be this year's Cup champ.

But how about simply making the Chase? Well, that's a different story.

History tells us that 75 percent of the top 12 in points six races into the season have gone on to make the playoffs. A quick look at this year's group shows a similar lock on the top nine spots: Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer are all seasoned veterans unlikely to stumble. Theoretically, that leaves just three spots available, guaranteeing a handful of top drivers will see this year's early struggles come back to cost them a place in the Chase.

So for slumping drivers, the message is clear: there's no margin for error. Here are six wheelmen whose seasons need to turn around ... and fast:

Mark Martin. The defending Phoenix champ comes to the desert reliving a nightmare. The goal for 2010 was to get Martin some breathing room early after a pitiful start to '09 (three finishes of 31st or worse in six races) left him rallying from a deep hole just to make the playoff cut.

But for NASCAR's Charlie Brown, the bad luck charm that's followed his career just won't let go. Three straight wrecks after a solid start have dropped him to 17th in points, leaving Phoenix a crucial weekend to stop the bleeding. With roulette-wheel tracks like Talladega and Richmond up ahead, the No. 5 car needs to bank wins -- and momentum -- any chance it can get.

"It's not hard to keep these guys motivated," says crew chief Alan Gustafson. "We all feel very frustrated, like we're in a hole that we didn't want to be in. We just have to make sure we don't cause ourselves any issues. A lot of the problems we've had have been self-inflicted. So we need to fix that."

They'll also have to battle against history: Hendrick has never sent more than three cars into the Chase since the format began in 2004. Right now, Martin's fourth on the totem pole, even behind roller-coaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings.

Comeback Chances: 90/10. But he can't afford to go through April and May without at least one win.

Denny Hamlin. It's a three-letter acronym that strikes fear in any athlete: ACL. For Hamlin, anterior cruciate ligament means enough excruciating pain to force him into surgery last week after a December left knee tear proved too much to overcome.

The goal for Hamlin now is not to miss any seat time, but that's going to be nearly impossible. Tomorrow he'll attempt to qualify just nine days after a major operation that keeps most people from driving for a month. Via Twitter, Hamlin has lowered expectations a bit:

"Regardless of what you read, the plan is to start on Saturday night," he said. "Beyond that, I just don't know."

Journeyman Casey Mears will stand by in relief. As long as Hamlin takes the green, he'll get credit for wherever the No. 11 Toyota ends up. But Mears is far from a miracle worker, and considering the logistics in changing drivers, he'll be lucky to drive that car into the top 20 each week. Considering Hamlin's down to 15th in points, those runs could serve as a fatal blow.

Comeback Chances: 50/50. If Hamlin's running a full race by Texas, OK. But if this injury has him less than 100 percent until Charlotte -- which is likely -- then 2010 turns into a throwaway for the popular preseason pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson.

Ryan Newman. Stewart-Haas' second season has turned into quite the sophomore slump. Driver/owner Tony Stewart has just one top 5 since Kansas last fall, and Newman's done worse, going 0 for his last 27 before breaking the dry spell at Martinsville last month.

Every other finish for the No. 39 this season has been 16th or worse, including two uncharacteristic DNFs. But despite a dip to 22nd in points, this veteran has the confidence of having made a similar comeback in '09. Then he was 18th in points, 79 points out of the Chase six races into last season.

"I think the key for us is to maintain that positive feeling we had after Martinsville," Newman said this week. "Everyone in the shop is pumped up about our finish and the fact we had a good car. These next few races are key; we need to take what we did and spin it into some more solid finishes."

Comeback Chances: 50/50. The competition is stiffer this year than at anytime in Chase history, so making that uphill climb won't be easy. But the unlimited access to Hendrick chassis, engines and information should help tremendously.

Kyle Busch. Armed with a goal of 200 wins spread throughout NASCAR's top three series, Busch is at it again with two victories total in Nationwide and Trucks. But the success in NASCAR's minor leagues hasn't made a dent where it really counts. Standing at 16th in points, Busch is without a top 5 finish in Cup, leading just 37 laps in his worst start since moving up as a rookie in 2005.

The problem for Busch is two-fold: distractions and Dave. Dabbling in other series pads the stat sheet, but leaves him working overtime elsewhere, especially in Trucks, where he's running two teams as an owner/driver. But new crew chief Dave Rogers is also to blame, failing to take the bull by the horns while struggling to handle a cranky Kyle, both on and off the track.

"Everybody has been asking me why I haven't been running good," said the frustrated driver last week. "Is it my head? Is it because I'm running a truck team? Is it this, is it that? ... I can only go as fast as my car will let me go."

That's a little dig at the man turning the wrenches. So for Busch to get back on track, team chemistry needs to turn at the No. 18 in a hurry.

Comeback Chances: 30/70. Texas next week is crucial; Busch should have won there in the Fall (with Rogers) until running out of fuel with three laps left. Stumble through April, and they're kissing their playoff chances goodbye.

Juan Pablo Montoya. The key to making the Chase for Montoya last year was consistency: 12 top 10s during the regular season with no DNFs attached.

But this year, the old school, aggressive driver needs to make a comeback to have any chance. Already, the Colombian's posted an engine failure, two wrecks and a blown tire that have him 25th in the point standings, 171 points behind Brian Vickers in 12th. Daytona 500-winning teammate Jamie McMurray is struggling too, leaving this team with nowhere to turn for support to turn things around. Just a two-car operation, it knows that falling behind isn't an option when you're going against the million dollar powerhouses like Roush and Hendrick.

Comeback Chances: 25/75. Montoya has some awful recent history on the next three tracks on the schedule: two top 10s compared to four wrecks at Phoenix, Texas and Talladega since 2008. He could very well end the month 250 points out of the Chase, and that's just too much of a deficit to make up.

Kasey Kahne. A hot start for Kahne has fizzled as of late, with an average finish of 25.5 on the short tracks, dropping him to 20th in points. That leaves the pending free agent with one foot already out the door at RPM.

"I have to feel like we're going in the right direction," he said last month at Las Vegas. "This is my seventh year and I've stuck it out with them since day one and done everything I could. In the middle of this year or towards the end of this year, when I decide to make my decision of what I'm gonna do, if I don't feel like we're gonna be able to run with the Hendrick cars for the next three or four years, then I've got to make a change."

Unfortunately for RPM, such criteria won't be met even if Kahne makes a comeback. And departing free agents usually don't keep the chemistry intact on their team long enough to make the Chase.

Comeback Chances: 10/90. Most have Kahne leaving the Ford camp, but my current school of thought is him sliding behind the wheel of Roush's No. 6 next year, replacing David Ragan (big money sponsor UPS wants results). But the bottom line is he likely won't be back at RPM; and that's enough to kill his Chase bid on the spot.

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