Laundry list of preseason Chase favorites will be outside looking in
Denny Hamlin only needs to hang on to the 12th spot in the points for a wild card
Clint Bowyer looked playoff-worthy, but a 36th at Atlanta all but sealed his fate
The Chase will be without mainstays Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin
For some of the drivers who were expected to be major contenders in the Chase for the Championship, they will be nothing more than bit players once the 10-race playoff starts at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 18
Their inability to win races, combined with a high number of DNFs will leave them with a DNMC -- Did Not Make Chase -- in 2011. But a few still have a glimmer of hope entering Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond.
Denny Hamlin entered the season as the man most likely to stop Jimmie Johnson's streak of five straight championships. While Hamlin will likely hold on to the 12th and final Chase spot with his lone victory at Michigan in June, his season has been one of spectacular disappointment. He got off to a notoriously slow start and through 25 races, Hamlin has just four top-fives and only nine top-10 finishes. His biggest flaw is two DNFs, but he hopes to enter the Chase on an upswing with a strong run at Richmond.
"You'd rather do that than try to figure out, 'OK, we won some races at the beginning of the year, why aren't we running good anymore?'" he said. "A few teams are like that right now. I'd rather sneak in, but be dangerous than be locked in [weeks ago] and still trying to figure out how we're going to be competitive with 10 races to go. ... We've struggled with a lot of mechanical issues that we're working through. That's put us in this position. I've made a few mistakes here and there, but overall we've just got to finish races and we haven't done a good job of that.
"Now we find ourselves in a position where if two of these guys sneak up and get a win in this last week, we could very well be out. For us, it's just about trying to run better because ultimately you want to be competitive in the Chase. I don't want to go in there and not be competitive."
Hamlin has been in the Chase in all five of his seasons in the series. If he simply hangs on to 12th position and the other drivers positions 13-20 do not win, Hamlin is in. He is also in if he wins Saturday night's race at one of his best tracks.
Then there is Clint Bowyer. He looked Chase-worthy through the first five months of the season, but once the calendar turned to July his fortunes took a huge dive.
He came to Daytona eighth in points and looked like a lock to make the playoff field. He started third but crashed during overtime and finished 36th. That dropped him to ninth in the standings. He attempted to rebound the following week in the first Cup race at Kentucky but again crashed, this time just eight laps from the checkered flag. He finished 35th and that dropped him to 12th in the standings.
Since that time, Bowyer has continued to struggle. Most recently, he crashed in Tuesday's rain-delayed race at Atlanta, which all but ensured he would miss the Chase. He is 14th, a whopping 54 points out and has five DNFs, the most of any driver in the top 29 in the standings (one has to go all the way back to 30th-place David Gilliland to find another driver with as many as five DNFs).
Greg Biffle was another driver who was expected to reach the playoffs. A four-time qualifier, he'll be watching from the outside with no wins, one top-five and seven top-10s.
Martin Truex Jr., an '07 Chase participant, is 16th in points with no wins, two top-fives, eight top-10 finishes and three DNFs.
Kasey Kahne will finish his only season at Red Bull Racing outside of the Chase after making the playoff two times since '04. Kahne never drove to a victory this season and has three top-fives and eight top-10s and is 17th in points.
Joey Logano was picked by some -- including myself -- to make the Chase this season. Instead, he is 18th with no wins, four fop-fives and six top-10s. He got off to a very slow start with a 23rd-place finish in the Daytona 500 followed by 33rd at Phoenix, 23rd at Las Vegas, 23rd at Bristol and 25th at Fontana. By the time he scored his first top-10 finish at Talladega in April it was too late to be a serious Chase contender.
Mark Martin is another driver with plenty of Chase experience but he won't make the field this year. He is 19th with no wins, two top-fivess, seven top-10 finishes and three DNFs.
When Paul Menard drove to his only win at the Brickyard 400 on July 31, it looked like he had clinched a spot in the Chase. But he has done little since that historic victory and is 20th in the standings with four top-fives and seven top-10 finishes. He can still get in if he wins Saturday night because that would give him two victories to Hamlin's one, but don't bet on that happening.
Jeff Burton has been in the Chase four times in seven years including last season, but he has been abysmal in 2011 with no wins, no top-fives and only one top-10 finish with three DNFs. The wild card was created for Jamie McMurray, who won three major races last year but didn't make the cut. He won't make it this year either as he has no wins, two top-fives, four top-10s and three DNFs.
Burton admits there came a point in the season where he became "too patient" with his former crew chief at Richard Childress Racing.
"Yeah, and that's what's difficult about these situations is when are you being too patient and when are you not being patient enough," Burton admitted. "I've always said the hardest part of what we do in this sport is knowing when to do something different and when you decide you've got to do something different sometimes it's too late, sometimes it's too early and that's really difficult."
Brian Vickers brings up the rear of drivers who have experience in the Chase (2009) in the past. But he was returning from a heart ailment that sidelined him last year and he wasn't expected to be a Chase driver. He's currently 27th in the standings.
For 12 drivers, the end of Saturday night's race at Richmond will be just the beginning of their season. But for many drivers who entered the season with high expectations, Saturday will be the coda of a season of major disappointment.