This year's also-rans are next year's Chase contenders
With the race for the Chase heating up, media attention has understandably shifted to the 15 or so men fighting for a dozen playoff spots. But before the playoff push overwhelms the rest of the field, there are a handful of others we need to salute. They may not be competing for this season-ending trophy, but by this time next year, they could be in the thick of the Chase hunt.
But since a ninth-place finish at Talladega in April, "Sliced Bread" has silenced replacement talk while slicing up the competition. He's scored five top 10s in the past four months -- more than famous teammate
As Logano returns to tracks a second time down the stretch, don't be surprised to see this kid play the role of spoiler for two reasons. Crew chief
Well, you wonder how UPS feels about its decision to leave now, with Reutimann scoring four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes in a career year. Peaking with a rain-shortened win in this year's Coca-Cola 600, he's responsible for the team's first victory in three seasons of Cup Series competition and its subsequent rise to legitimate weekly contender. In contrast,
Looking ahead, Penske offers stable support from primary sponsor Mobil 1, and could very well become the only Cup team under the Dodge banner in 2010 with the departure of Richard Petty Motorsports. That should consolidate and increase support of the program, which already has one driver in the Chase this year (
Particularly strong on the road courses, he almost scored his first career win at Watkins Glen two weeks ago before settling for second behind Tony Stewart. But that's not the only skill he's mastered quickly while adjusting to Cup; he finished fourth and sixth at the restrictor plate races of Talladega and Daytona, which are usually the kiss of death for first-year drivers.
Ambrose is locked up with JTG Daugherty Racing (which works right out of Michael Waltrip Racing's shop) through 2010, and the team is working on a long-term deal. Intermediate tracks remain the lone weakness: he has yet to score a top-10 finish on a track one to two miles in length.
Meanwhile, Keselowski scored the upset victory of the year at Talladega, driving a single-car effort at Phoenix Racing that hadn't won in nearly two decades of Cup competition. While the car was a Hendrick chassis, it came without the millions in engineering and technical support that usually accompany any such cars at HMS.
The pseudo-rookie won in just his fifth career start with the type of moves you'd see from a grizzled veteran. After adding two other top-10 finishes to his resume, Keselowski has become the hottest free agent of 2009 as he weighs offers from Hendrick, Penske, and others to make a jump to the Cup Series full-time next year.
What he'll do is anybody's guess (although I keep hearing Penske as the number one option), but no matter what, expect him to be in the hunt for the top 12 come next August.