5 Desperate Drivers
You've heard all about the 2005 struggles and '06 prospects of superstars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. But some of the sport's other leading men are under the gun as well. These drivers failed to make the Chase in '05 and will be facing an enormous amount of sponsor-driven pressure to advance to NASCAR's playoff next season.
3,611 points; 23rd place
THE LOWDOWN: After taking a series-high five second-place finishes in 2004, Kahne slipped dramatically in '05. Yes, he won the spring race at Richmond, but his average finish was a dreadful 22.0. The talent is there, but the clock's ticking.
4,084 points; 13th place
THE LOWDOWN: A Chaser in '04, Sadler was third in the standings last June and 14th two months later because of four 30th-or-worse finishes. After a year of bad luck and bad setups, he needs to reclaim speed and consistency.
4,072 points; 14th place
THE LOWDOWN: When he took over Dale Earnhardt's seat, in '01, Harvick was hailed as a potential superstar. Five years later he has won just five races and missed both Chases. Next year is crucial for the 30-year-old Harvick.
3,960 points; 15th place
THE LOWDOWN: The good news-- Jarrett won the fall race at Talladega. The bad news--it was his first victory in 99 starts. The '99 Cup champ must improve his qualifying (his average '05 starting spot was 18.2) to be a Chase threat.
4,130 points; 12th place
THE LOWDOWN: For the second time McMurray missed the Chase because of an accident in the regular-season finale. In '06 McMurray heads to Roush--where everybody makes the Chase--so maybe his near misses are done.
From Daytona to Homestead, and every place in between, the Nextel Cup circuit will feature 36 races at 22 tracks in 19 states. There are no major changes in the '06 schedule, though the spring races at Richmond and Darlington will swap dates, as will the fall races at Kansas and Talladega. The Chase for the Nextel Cup will begin at New Hampshire on Sept. 17.
2/19 DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY Daytona Beach, Fla.
2/26 CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY Fontana, Calif.
3/12 LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY Las Vegas, Nev.