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Thursday, May 9, 2013
Chase odds for suprising trio

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Here's a question no one would have envisioned before the 2013 Sprint Cup season started:

Who has a better chance of fighting his way into the Chase now, after 10 races -- Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart or David Ragan?

Can Ragan, a driver from an underfunded team like Front Row Motorsports, make the playoff? Can Hamlin still make it from 31st in the standings as he returns from his back injury? Can Stewart turn his season around, even though he hasn't posted a top-5 all year?

With his upset victory at Talladega last weekend, Ragan is the only one of those three drivers with a win this season, giving him a leg up on a possible wild-card spot for the Chase.

It's still a long shot. None of them has a great chance to make the playoff, which is 16 races away. But this is one of the things that makes the Chase fun -- they still have an outside shot of racing for the championship.

Here's a look at my odds for each of them. Remember, this is just the odds to make the Chase, not to win the title:

Ragan: 20 to 1.

Almost everyone in the Cup garage was happy for Ragan on Sunday, because his win gave team owner Bob Jenkins his first victory.

"I've got guys at the shop that have the heart to win races," Jenkins said Sunday night. "We just haven't always had the resources. So the challenge for me is, as we build cars, is to make them better every week and to put ourselves in a position to win a race. That's really what happened today.

"It's just so satisfying to see that over the last nine years we've gotten a little bit better every single year. I felt the progress and I knew it was just a matter of time before we'd win one of these things."

Ragan now has one more victory this season than Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer or Brad Keselowski, all of whom rank in the top five in the standings without a win.

David Ragan
David Ragan has one victory under his belt, but he's not in the top 20 in the Sprint Cup standings. He's going to have to get in the the top 20 -- and likely win again -- to have any shot at making the Chase.

Ragan's one win probably won't be enough to earn one of the two wild-card spots in the Chase, but one more victory might do it. Can he get it?

Not likely, since Ragan's best finish this season was 20th before the shocker at Talladega. However, restrictor plates are his specialty. His other Cup victory came in the Daytona summer race two years ago, so a victory there on July 6 is not out of the question.

One more win, however, isn't enough. Ragan also has to climb into the top 20. He's 26th now, 39 points behind Kurt Busch in 20th. A driver has to rank in the top 20 in order to qualify for a wild-card spot.

Whatever you consider the odds, it's hard not to root for Ragan and a fledgling organization that's trying to compete with the big boys of the sport.

"Every team has to start somewhere, just like every business," Ragan said. "You do it from the ground up. We've done that. It's been very tough to grow as a team. You have a lot big teams you're up against financially. At times, Bob has financed us out of his own pocket so we could keep going.

"Sunday was a special deal for all our employees and our partners that believe in us. It's rewarding and it's been a lot of fun."

Making it more rewarding was FRM teammate David Gilliland finishing second and pushing Ragan to the victory.

"We have 46 employees for three full-time teams [including Josh Wise]," said Gilliland. "There's a lot on their plate and it's been tough on us. Sometimes we go to the track and not all of us have backup cars. So doing what we did last weekend is very gratifying for everyone."

Stewart: 15 to 1.

As bad as things have gone for Stewart and the No. 14 Chevy team, the odds right now look more like 150 to 1. But Stewart is a three-time champion and capable of winning on any weekend.

However, Stewart-Haas Racing is a step behind on its Gen-6 car setups. That has to change if Stewart is going to salvage this season.

Next up for the Cup teams is the Southern 500 at Darlington, one of only three tracks where Stewart has not won a Cup race. But he did win a Nationwide Series event on "The Lady in Black" in 2008.

"It doesn't hurt, but just because you won in a Nationwide Series car doesn't guarantee success in the Cup car," Stewart said. "We still have to go out and do our job on the Cup side. The cars drive totally different.

"We've got a lot more horsepower with the Cup cars than the Nationwide cars have, so the driving style is different. But still, as much as anything, it gives you confidence."

Stewart is 22nd in the standings, but look for him to move back inside the top 20 soon. He will need a couple of victories in the next 16 races.

Hamlin: 10 to 1.

If all you go by is the standings, Hamlin is the biggest long shot of this trio. He's 76 points outside of 20th. That's quite a hill to climb.

But Hamlin is in this hole through no fault of his own. He missed four races because of a back fracture -- four and a half if you count getting out of the car last weekend at Talladega during the first caution. replaced byBrian Vickers finished the race.

Now he's back, raring to go. Hamlin has the team, the car and the skill to make a legitimate run at it.

"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."

Hamlin led laps in four of his five starts before the injury. He might have won at Fontana if not for the last-lap crash while battling for the win with rival Joey Logano.

The Fontana crash caused him to finish 25th, but Hamlin still ranked 10th in the standings. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won four times in the first 10 races -- two by Matt Kenseth and two by Kyle Busch.

Twelve of Hamlin's 22 career victories have come at the tracks the Cup series will visit over the 16 remaining races of the regular season, including four wins at Pocono and two each at Michigan, New Hampshire and Richmond.

"We have to just treat it like it's the last chance," Hamlin said. "It's game seven every single week, realistically, for us. If we win two races, I'm going to find it very hard to believe we won't be part of the Chase. I don't think anyone has won two and not made it. And that likely will put us in the top 20."

It's a difficult path for any of these three guys, but four months is plenty of time to make a run at it.