Red Bull still running strong
If you go by the average finish in the first three playoff races, guess which driver is the seventh best in the Chase right now?
OK, that's a trick question. The seventh-best driver isn't in the Chase. He's Kasey Kahne, whose average finish is 10.3 in the Chase.
And take a wild guess which driver is right behind him? That's Red Bull teammate Brian Vickers, whose average Chase finish is 10.6.
Fans say reporters don't cover the non-Chasers during the Chase. This is a column to disprove that theory.
It starts with the Red Bull Racing Team. If ever a team had a reason to give up and go through the motions down the stretch, this is the one. The future is precarious at best and nonexistent at worst, but both cars are running competitively in the Chase events.
Both Kahne and Vickers have finished in the top 15 in all three playoff races, and each has posted one top-5. Kahne, who moves on to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, finished fourth Sunday at Dover; Vickers finished fifth at New Hampshire.
"I'm proud of what we're doing, and I still expect us to win a race or two before the year's out," said Red Bull Racing Team vice president and GM Jay Frye. "The team still is working hard, and it's full speed ahead. We have a lot of good things going on internally."
But the team has a lot of unknowns, as well. The organization still needs an investor to step up and take over for Red Bull, which is leaving at the end of the season. RBRT will have to lay off 152 employees in December if no one purchases the operation.
"Frankly, we use it as motivation," Frye said. "Performing at a high level ultimately will help us transition into a new investment group and new ownership.
"Obviously, it helps when people we talk to see the team running well. It will help close a deal and go on to the next chapter. We had two new calls [about purchasing the team] last week and another one [Monday] morning."
As Cup teams go, this is a heck of a deal. Typically, a Cup team is in financial turmoil when it is about to shut down, as was the case with Richard Petty Motorsports last fall before Andrew Murstein's financial group purchased RPM.
"We use that as an example to our people what can happen," Frye said. "That deal wasn't put together until November last year. These things take time."
The Red Bull team is not in financial turmoil. The Red Bull company is committed financially through the end of the season. Both cars are testing this week at Phoenix with the other Cup teams.
Heading to Kansas Speedway this weekend, the Red Bull drivers are the best non-Chasers on the track.
"If we do the right things, this will take care of itself," Frye said. "Something good will happen because good things happen to good people. I believe that."
Kahne and Vickers aren't the only non-Chasers making an impression in the Chase races.
Two of the non-Chasers at Richard Childress Racing have posted decent runs, as well. Jeff Burton, who didn't come close to making the Chase with only one top-10 finish this season, has finished in the top 15 in all three Chase events.
RCR teammate Clint Bowyer, who is expected to move to Michael Waltrip Racing next year, has two top-10s in the Chase.
It's nice to have consistency because this is what we stressed going into the final 10 races. We're on the right path, but still need to improve. It's been a fun season because we keep seeing these improvements, and that gives the entire Furniture Row Racing team a morale boost.” -- Regan Smith
"It's nice to have consistency because this is what we stressed going into the final 10 races," said Smith, who won at Darlington this year. "We're on the right path, but still need to improve. It's been a fun season because we keep seeing these improvements, and that gives the entire Furniture Row Racing team a morale boost."
Eight non-Chasers have posted at least one top-10 in the Chase, and three of them have finished one race in the top 5.
Yes, the non-Chasers do matter in the Chase, and some of them can run near the front. Will any of them bag a win?
The only person who managed that feat in the previous three seasons was Jamie McMurray last year at Charlotte.
Five drivers outside the Chase -- Smith, Ambrose, Ragan, Paul Menard and Trevor Bayne -- have won a Cup race this season. All five are first-time winners. Maybe one of them, or another driver who has yet to win, will make a visit to Victory Lane in the Chase.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.