Battle for Chase positions heating up now
Juan Pablo Montoya has looked up to Mark Martin ever since he arrived in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
Martin is one of the veteran drivers Montoya respects most and has often gone to for advice on how to drive a stock car or how to survive in NASCAR’s ultra-competitive world.
Now Montoya must go to Martin for advice on how to dig himself out of a hole.
A big hole.
A year after making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Montoya has gotten off to a terrible start, with bad luck burying him in 25th in the points standings after six races.
Montoya must now find a way to quickly turn his team around and begin the steady climb back toward the top 12 in points.
Martin has been there, done that.
A year ago, he was 27th in points after six races, with the Chase looking like a distant dream.
But Martin went on a hot streak, including four victories and a steady diet of top-five and top-10 finishes, to climb back into contention. It started with his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports, which came last year at Phoenix International Raceway, the next stop on the Sprint Cup circuit.
It took Martin just a few weeks to climb into the top 12 in points and he was 10th by the 26th race of the season, the final event before the Chase began.
Montoya must hope he can put together the same type of streak to return to the Chase.
And he’s not alone.
Six of the 12 drivers who made last year’s Chase are currently outside the top 12 in points, along with several other drivers who had high hopes of making the playoffs this season.
Carl Edwards (14th in points), Denny Hamlin (15th), Kyle Busch (16th) and Martin (17th) are not far behind 12th-place Brian Vickers and can crack the top 12 with one or two good runs.
Kasey Kahne (20th), Ryan Newman (22nd) and Montoya are in deeper trouble and must make dramatic improvement quickly.
Martin Truex Jr. (18th), Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray (19th) and David Reutimann (24th) were also considered Chase contenders entering this season, but have gotten off to disappointing starts.
It’s still early and all of them have plenty of time to turn things around and get back into contention. And there’s precedent for doing it.
A year ago, Martin, Newman, Vickers and Greg Biffle were all 18th or worse in points at this point of the season, but each rallied to make the Chase.
Who’s the most likely to turn things around this year?
Martin and Montoya are at the top of the list.
Both have run well, but have been saddled with poor finishes due to mechanical failures, wrecks and just plain bad luck.
Martin has two top-five finishes and has led three of the six races. He could have won at both Bristol and Martinsville.
Montoya has one top-10 and one top-five (third at Atlanta) and has led four of the six races.
Both have strong teams and are legitimate championship contenders. Barring more misfortune, they should rally and make the Chase.
Kyle Busch also fits into that category, though he missed the Chase last year. Busch has struggled at times this season, but has also suffered from bad luck.
He is adjusting to a new crew chief in Dave Rogers, but Busch has shown a knack for being a bit more patient and conservative this season, which might need lead to fewer wins, but could get him back in the Chase.
Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kahne (Richard Petty Motorsports) are a bit more iffy. Both are quality drivers, but they have struggled with consistency this season, not good signs for teams that are still in transition.
Newman made it last year, but neither he nor teammate Tony Stewart have shown the same strength or consistency this season. They must find some magic quickly to put both teams back in the Chase.
Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports team merged with Yates Racing this year and is now leaning on Roush Fenway Racing for support. Kahne has struggled, with just one strong run all season (fourth at Atlanta), which does not bode well for a team trying to sign him to a contract extension.
Truex, McMurray and Reutimann face longer odds since their teams have never made the Chase before.
The other challenge that all those drivers face is that there are few surprises in the current top 12.
Of the current top 12, six made the Chase last year and 11 have been in the playoffs before.
Paul Menard is the only newcomer to the top 12 and the only driver not likely to stay there.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. (currently 10th) has truly turned things around at Hendrick Motorsports and is ready to contend again, then there are few shaky teams currently in the top 12.
That means the drivers currently on the outside looking in could have a real dogfight on their hands.
Which could make the race to make this year’s Chase one of the most competitive ever.