Ten races remain in the Sprint Cup season and drivers can be generally categorized into three groups: the 12 in the Chase for the championship who have had a successful year; the middle class who challenged for the Chase (some, like Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann have even won races) and whose jobs are secure for next year and beyond; and those who desperately need to do something -- in some cases a top-10 finish would be an improvement -- to salvage their seasons and maybe even save their jobs.
BradKeselowski, Sam Hornish Jr., David Ragan and Scott Speed are in the third group. They face a different kind of pressure than the Chase contenders and it is, perhaps, more intense.
Keselowski and Hornish drive for Penske Racing and neither has a top-10 this season. Out of the 31 drivers who have started all 26 Cup races, Regan Smith and Bobby Labonte are the only other two without top-10s and they don't drive for front-line teams. Penske has Kurt Busch in the Chase and that puts Keselowski and Hornish into a no-excuses situation regarding the quality of their equipment or technical information. It's on them to perform better, period.
This is Keselowski's first full season in Sprint Cup and with Penske. He was highly coveted on the free agent market last year after strong Nationwide seasons with JR Motorsports. He's best known for his first Cup victory at Talladega last year when, driving for James Finch's low-budget Phoenix Racing, he hit the blocking Carl Edwards heading for the checkered flag and sent Edwards flying. They've tangled since, of course, and Keselowski has also been involved in contentious wrecks with Kyle Bush and Denny Hamlin in Nationwide.
Keselowski's arrival at Penske came with high expectations, maybe not the Chase, but certainly some top-10s and top-20 in the points. With new crew chief Jay Guy, this was supposed to be a building year for the 26-year-old from Michigan, but he's managed only five top-15 finishes in 26 races.
Keselowski is 26th in the points and is undoubtedly frustrated.
"We're trying so hard," Keselowski said after finishing 15th at Richmond last Saturday. "We can't seem to get that top-10, but it isn't for the lack of effort, that's for damn sure. A lot of heart and a lot of hard work have gone into our program, but we haven't gotten there yet. We just don't have quite enough speed in our cars. We've got to find some speed."
Keselowski's Dodge has been primarily sponsored by team owner Roger Penske's companies this season. When Shell/Pennzoil decided to move to Penske for 2011 this spring, it wanted Busch to drive. Penske was able to convince Miller Lite, a 20-year sponsor with the organization, to go onto Keselowski's car next year. Miller can't be pleased with what it's seen from Keselowski, who can make his winter considerably less stressful by delivering a couple of top-10s and a top-five in the last 10 races. He needs to start his 2011 season now by building confidence and momentum.
Hornish's job is clearly in jeopardy. Penske knew it would take time for Hornish to make the transition from IndyCar, where he was a three-time series champion who won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 driving for Penske, but 26 races into his third full Sprint Cup season, he's not made substantive progress. Hornish was 35th in the points without a top-10 in 2008, but jumped up to 28th with two top-fives and seven top-10s in 2009. He's 28th in the points and, worse, has only four top-15s. It's the wrong year to go into a regression.
Penske's signing of Shell/Pennzoil forced Hornish's Mobil 1 sponsorship to move on and the team hasn't been able to find a replacement. If Penske isn't able to put together a new deal for Hornish, and time is short to do it, it's very likely he won't return. Roger Penske has deep pockets and is very loyal, but there are limits. After a year of running teams in Cup and IndyCar partially financed with his company money, he needs a sponsor in order to keep Hornish, who could help with some better results, a selling point of late-season progress.
Ragan has three Roush Fenway Racing teammates in the Chase and he's 25th in the points with one top-10 this season. Team co-owner Jack Roush has stuck with Ragan since promoting him from the Camping World Truck Series to a full-time Cup ride in 2007. As a 21-year-old rookie, Ragan showed promise with two top-fives and he finished 23rd in the points. He challenged for the Chase with a late run in 2008 and finished 13th in the points with six top-fives and 14 top-10s. Sponsor UPS joined Roush Fenway and went onto Ragan's No. 6 in 2009, undoubtedly expecting him to be a Chase contender. But he fell hard last season to 27th in the points with only two top-10s, a performance that can be partially explained by the organization's struggles to maintain its competitiveness. Roush Fenway has rebounded well this year and Ragan hasn't.
Ragan and UPS are under contract for 2011 and the driver, only 24, needs to prove he belongs with a high-profile team and sponsor. The Chase would be an opportune time for a turnaround.
Speed started this season with some promising runs: 11th at Auto Club Speedway in California and 10h at Atlanta. He's had one top-10 since, a 10th at Daytona, and eight finishes of 30th or worse. He is 27th in the points.
This is Speed's second full season in Cup. He was fifth at Talladega in 2009, had no other top-10s and was 35th in the points. Red Bull rushed him into its Cup program, discarding A.J. Almendinger late in 2008. Speed rose to Formula 1 through Red Bull's driver development program, driving for its satellite Toro Rosso team in 2006 and 2007. He was released at midseason in 2007, but with Red Bull's backing, moved immediately into stock cars. He drove in ARCA that year and did 10 races, which included a victory, in NASCAR's Truck Series in 2008.
Speed's situation is similar to Hornish's, a former open-wheel driver who needs to make progress. Red Bull will evaluate Speed at the end of the season and then decide whether to keep him. Kasey Kahne will occupy one Red Bull car next season and the team expects Brian Vickers to return from his medical problems. Red Bull has said it might expand to three cars. That decision seems largely dependent upon Speed's results in the final 10 races.