With just two races complete in the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season, anxiety has already begun to set-in for a number of drivers who ranked as preseason favorites for the championship just a month ago.
Two-time series champion Tony Stewart stands 21st in points, 149 behind leader Mark Martin. Coming off a 2006 campaign that gave new meaning to the term “sophomore slump,” Carl Edwards is 26th, 165 points behind. Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all rank between 27th and 40th in Nextel Cup points, with Earnhardt a whopping 225 markers off the pace in 40th position.
Earnhardt’s situation seems especially perilous, since no driver in the history of NASCAR has come from 40th or worse after two races to win the championship. In 1996, Jeff Gordon rebounded from outside the Top-40 to finish second behind Terry Labonte, but aside from that single, “close but no cigar” finish, history offers little reason for optimism.
In 1998, Johnny Benson came from outside the Top-40 after two races to finish 20th. In 2001, Kevin Harvick stepped into Richard Childress’ Chevrolet for the second race of the season, following Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona. He ranked 40th after two races, and eventually finished ninth. More recently, Scott Riggs failed to make last year’s Daytona 500, but eventually rebounded to finish 20th.
That’s not exactly the stuff of which championship dreams are made, especially considering the awesome depth of competition on this year’s Nextel Cup Series. There are a couple of reasons for optimism, though.
Stewart and Earnhardt, in particular, have had good cars this season. Junior ran well before being swept up in someone else’s wreck at Daytona, then saw engine failure thwart an apparent Top-10 run at California Speedway. If not for that little skirmish with Kurt Busch, it’s hard to imagine Stewart finishing any worse than second in the Daytona 500, and he followed that race with a solid eighth-place finish in California.
Stuff happens, you know?
Equally important is the fact that with the newly revised “Chase For The Championship” format in place, Stewart, Earnhardt and the rest of this year’s slow starters need only to make the Top-12 after race #26 at Richmond on September 8th to put themselves right back in the title hunt, and have the gap between themselves and the point leader trimmed substantially. On that basis, Earnhardt, Stewart, Edwards and the rest of the underachievers still have a solid shot to make the Chase, or even win the championship.
So Junior fans, look on the bright side. You could be rooting for Michael Waltrip, who after two races stands a colossal 362 points out of the lead, with a grand total of minus 27.
Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.