Sprint Cup's marathon 36-race season ends Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a rousing race for the championship between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who leads by three points. But they aren't the only drivers who would benefit greatly from heading into the offseason with a victory. There are extended winless streaks to stop, momentum to be built and resumes to fill out.
Here are five drivers who could really use a win in the last-chance race of 2011.
Wouldn't he like to stomp on that 128-race winless streak and arrive at Daytona next February able to talk about the season ahead rather than the one behind? You bet he would. It's been a good season for Junior, in the Chase after two years away, but he likely won't reach his goal of finishing in the top-five in points even with a win. Earnhardt is 34 points behind Jimmie Johnson. Holding onto seventh would be his best season since finishing fifth in 2006 and that would be worth something, too.
Earnhardt's prospects at Homestead don't appear promising. He doesn't have a top-10 in 11 career starts on the 1.5-mile track and is looking for some magic from crew chief Steve Letarte.
"The way they [Homestead] ditched the banking has made it a real challenge for me," Earnhardt said. "I can't really get a car to roll through the center and turn well. I haven't had a car that was quite free enough in all the times being there. As I drive into the banking, it gets tighter and tighter as it loads the right front into the banking. It just doesn't suit my style. I'm going there with a new crew chief this year and he prepares a car completely different from the guys I've worked with in the past. Maybe that will be the difference."
The monkey on Busch's back: He's never won a Chase race in 48 attempts. Wouldn't he like to throw that streak in the trash bin of history? Busch also needs to remind sponsors and team owner Joe Gibbs why they put up with his antics. He needs to close out 2011 with a positive, rather than the negatives that have plagued him this season.
"We have one more chance, one more opportunity to win a race ... and end it [this year] on a high note," Busch said. "It's certainly been a tough few weeks and all we can do is look forward to Homestead ... and get ready to build upon it for 2012."
The Chase has been a severe disappointment for Gordon, who won three races and was fourth in the regular-season points. He was the third seed in the Chase and arrives at Homestead 11th with two third-place finishes and a sixth in nine races.
"We knew we were out of it [the championship]," Gordon said after finishing 32nd at Phoenix, "but you want to close the season on a positive note and carry some momentum into the offseason as well as finish as high in the points as you can. It hasn't been our Chase at all and not the kind of year we wanted or the way we wanted to close out the year. This is a very good team and we've got a lot to look forward to in the future."
He has 21 career victories in Sprint Cup, but has gone through 112 races since the last in 2008. Burton is better known for his top-10 consistency, which has landed him in the Chase four times. This season had been a disaster for him -- Burton had one top-10 in 31 races -- but he turned it around with a second at Talladega, sixth at Martinsville and fourth at Phoenix. The way he's been running, Burton has a chance to close out 2011 with a win.
In addition to trying to end the winless streak, Burton wants to carry the momentum into Daytona.
"I hope so," he said. "We're learning. I know this sounds silly, but we learned an awful lot of what not to do earlier in the year and it just took us forever to recover from it. We started working on things that just weren't the right things to work on and now we're starting to work on stuff that is making a difference."
It's been a difficult season for Reutimann and it took a turn for the worse two weeks ago when he found out Michael Waltrip Racing was releasing him. Reutimann had one year remaining on his contract with Waltrip and had two Sprint Cup victories for the team, including one a year ago at Chicagoland.
Reutimann, 28th in points, has three top-10s this year, a second at Kentucky, a seventh at Phoenix last week and a ninth at Charlotte in May. It's not much to take to teams and sponsors, but he was 18th in the points in 2010 with six top-fives and nine top-10s. And he's got those two wins.
There are undoubtedly teams that would be interested in hiring Reutimann, but he was released so late that opportunities with funded rides are gone, and it takes time to sell a package around a suddenly available driver. Still, seventh at Phoenix will help and a victory at Homestead would be a major selling point for Reutimann next season.
"This team is capable of racing like this all the time," Reutimann said following Phoenix, "but for one reason or another, we haven't shown it much this year. This is a great group of guys ... they have been with me a long time. We have one more week together and I want to go out on a high note at Homestead."