Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have combined to win 134 races and seven championships in their lengthy Sprint Cup careers. They are unquestionably two of the five best NASCAR drivers of the past 30 years. Yet, one-third of the way toward setting the field for this year's Chase for the Championship, both currently sit outside the 12-driver Chase. In fact, Stewart is so far out (21st in the standings) that he is drifting into Jeff Burton territory.
This all might be one of those inevitable changing-of-the-guard type moments. Both drivers are in their 40s, and eventually they will no longer be consistent championship contenders. Gordon had to scramble simply to make last year's Chase, and then wasn't a factor after he got in. Stewart, who won the title just two years ago, has struggled mightily this season and would need an amazing turnaround in the coming months to qualify for the Chase.
As surprising as it would be to have a Chase that is missing both Gordon and Stewart, it is equally as surprising that two of the candidates to replace them in this year's field are Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard. Neither driver has ever made the Chase. McMurray has six career Cup victories but is winless since 2010, while Menard has only one win in 227 career Cup starts. McMurray has finished in the top 15 of the final standings once during the past seven seasons, and Menard has never finished that high in six full seasons on the circuit.
Still, it might be time to start taking both drivers seriously as Chase contenders. Neither has been great this season, but both have been steady. McMurray's seventh-place finish on Sunday at Kansas Speedway was his third top-10 in the past five races and moved him into 11th in the point standings. Menard finished 10th at Kansas, his fourth top-10 in the past six races, leaving him 10th in the standings.
Making the Chase would be a significant accomplishment for both drivers, and for their race teams. McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya failed to post a single top-5 finish last season for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, a team that somehow fell apart following a four-victory performance in 2010.
"We made a lot of changes in 2011. We hired a lot of new people and changed the way we go about a lot of things at the shop," McMurray explained. "I said at the beginning of 2012 that it wasn't going to be immediate. And it's taken some time. But [this year], we've at least been in position to contend. Our cars are better than they were in 2010. We have constantly been competitive at every single racetrack this year. Even in 2010, we didn't have that."
Meanwhile, with Kevin Harvick going through a lame duck season at Richard Childress Racing and the 45-year-old Burton entering the fifth season of his winless streak, Menard suddenly is the team's premier driver (at least until Childress' grandson, current Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon, likely moves up to Sprint Cup next year). Menard's solid start this season has provided a much-needed boost for an organization that hasn't had a lot of good moments lately.
"Last year was a struggle," Menard said. "In 2011 we were pretty good as a company. Last year we took a step back. We just got behind on some of the tricks, I guess. Having Eric [Warren] come in [as the team's director of competition] towards the end of the year helped. We saw our performance pick up a little bit in October and November. Just getting everybody on the same page and working in the same direction has translated to this year."
Granted, there are still 18 races to go before the Chase begins and much can happen. Gordon showed last year how fortunes can change when he picked up 10 spots in the point standings over the final 12 weeks of the regular season to sneak into the Chase. But for now, at least, McMurray and Menard are looking down on some of the biggest names in the sport. And they are undoubtedly enjoying the view.
1. Jimmie Johnson (2nd previously) -- He's led the point standings for six of the first eight weeks of the season and finished outside the top-10 in only two races. Even when he doesn't have a dominant car, like on Sunday at Kansas, he still manages to produce a quality finish.
2. Kasey Kahne (5th) -- After stumbling through the first two races of the season, Kahne has posted four top-5 finishes over the past six races. His worst outing during that span was 11th. As a result, he has improved from 29th to second in the point standings.
3. Brad Keselowski (3rd) -- Take away points. Threaten to take away his crew chief. None of it seems to matter. Keselowski is a top-10 machine, with a series-best seven such finishes already this season. All that is missing is a victory.
4. Kyle Busch (1st) -- After Busch posted five consecutive top-5s, a crash early in Sunday's race sent him to a 38th-place showing. It might just be bad luck, but he has yet to demonstrate the consistency needed to win the championship.
5. Matt Kenseth (7th) -- If all the races were held on 1.5-mile tracks, then Kenseth would be the best in the business. But he simply has to improve on short tracks such as Richmond, the site of the upcoming race, where he has managed only 10 top-10s and four top-5s in 26 career starts.
6. Carl Edwards (4th) -- He's already having a much better season than he did last year, but he's struggling to find consistency. Edwards has followed up each of his past three top-10s with finishes of 15th or worse.
7. Greg Biffle (6th) -- He said after Sunday's 19th-place showing that, "We're just not as good as we need to be." He is still fourth in the point standings, but has only one top-5 this season.
8. Clint Bowyer (9th) -- Like Edwards, Bowyer has been up and down all season. He has four finishes of sixth or better, and four outside the top-10 (including two worse than 25th).
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8th) -- He opened the season with five consecutive top-5 finishes, which propelled him to the top of the point standings., but has failed to crack the top-15 in the three races since then and has dropped to fifth in the standings.
10. Paul Menard (unranked) -- He might not attract much attention, but he's quietly become one of the better drivers on the circuit. He has as many top 10s (four) as Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart combined.