Commentary

Real needs at Kansas

Updated: October 20, 2012, 7:00 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Everyone needs something. A few drivers racing at Kansas on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) need something more than others.

The top three Chase contenders -- Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- don't have anything to prove, but each of them could use a victory, or at least a finish ahead of the other two, to enhance his Sprint Cup title hopes down the stretch.

But the three drivers on this list -- Danica Patrick, Regan Smith and Carl Edwards -- have needs that are a little more esoteric. It has nothing to do with a championship. Their needs are all about showing something positive. Here's why:

Danica Patrick: Saturday was a good day. Patrick had one of her better finishes of the season with a 10th-place showing in the Nationwide event at Kansas. It's encouraging entering Sunday's Cup race, and she needs some encouragement.

Just finishing on the lead lap in a Cup race would be a major accomplishment at this point, given that she hasn't done that in seven Cup starts this season.

Let's face facts: It's been an awful year so far for her Cup debut. And frankly, I'm growing weary of her boss, Tony Stewart, and many others, making excuses based on her lack of experience. Patrick has been doing this for a while now in a stock car. She has quite a bit of seat time.

I don't expect her to go out and finish in the top five in Cup, but her best finish this season is 25th at Chicagoland Speedway, which was two laps down. That's just not good enough for someone in quality equipment who will run full time in Cup next season.

"I get frustrated when I think about how I'm doing out there in Cup sometimes in practice," Patrick said Friday. "I'm just getting over the hurdle of running at difficult tracks and unique places. I think it's going to be helpful to have some sort of baseline setup going to these places next year.

"I remember back to Nationwide, and I didn't do so great there either at first, but you end up figuring out how to drive the car and how to get it to the limit. You have to feel that out and be able to believe in that. I'm just not quite there."

Patrick has been OK this year in her first full season in the Nationwide Series. She entered Saturday's race at Kansas ranked 10th in the standings, but that's a bit misleading. She's 10th out of the 13 drivers who have raced every event.

Patrick receives a huge amount of unfair criticism from some race fans who feel she got a free ride into NASCAR with her good looks and celebrity appeal.

News flash, folks: How drivers look and how they act and present themselves have been a big part of making it to the top level of NASCAR for a long time.

However, Patrick needs no apologies for her qualifications. She was a top-10 competitor in IndyCar for six consecutive seasons.

People bring up her lack of winning. Guess what? There are 15 other drivers who start Sunday's race who have never have won a Cup event. Four others -- David Ragan, Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne and Smith -- have won once, the same number of victories Patrick had in IndyCar.

No one complains about all those drivers because none of them receives the attention Patrick receives. It's wrong to blame Patrick for her business savvy and her ability to market her brand, and it's wrong to say she doesn't deserve a shot in NASCAR.

But it's painfully true that her effort this season has not lived up to expectations and that she needs to do better.

"I'm not the kind of driver that goes out there and goes past [the limit] to figure out where it is," Patrick said. "I build up to it. I'm not very good early on at taking a car that's not right and make it decent. I just don't have the confidence to do that yet.

"I know that, in Nationwide, when I finally kind of figured out how to drive the 1.5-mile tracks, it helped on all of them. So I've just got to figure out those characteristics of the car and how to wrap my head around it. I've got to build up my confidence."

Regan Smith: He gets an incomplete after the engine went kaput in his first start last weekend in the No. 88 Chevy as the sub for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Smith needs a strong showing Sunday to prove he can get it done in quality equipment.

Consider this: Earnhardt posted a top-10 finish in all seven of his starts this season on 1.5-mile ovals. His average finish on these tracks in 2012 is 7.4, and Earnhardt finished seventh at Kansas in April.

Granted, this is a completely different track now with the repave and reconstruction to progressive banking, but it's clear the 88 team can get it done on the intermediate ovals.

So anything less than a top-10 by Smith doesn't look so good. And he's starting 39th after almost spinning in Turn 1 of his first qualifying lap Friday, but he was second in Happy Hour on Saturday.

Smith might be in line for a ride on the JR Motorsports Nationwide team next year regardless of what he does in the 88 car, but a strong showing will go a long way toward earning a shot with a good Cup team in the future.

Carl Edwards: What in the world happened here? How do you go from losing the 2011 championship on a tiebreaker to failing to make the Chase, not winning a race, ranking 15th in the standings and posting only three top-5s all season?

Despite all that, Edwards is brimming with confidence this weekend. It wasn't quite a Denny-Hamlin-style guarantee, but Edwards believes he can win this race.

"I'm almost ready to say we are going to win it," Edwards said. "I'm almost ready to predict that. I think we are going to be very, very good. I swear to you, I am going to drive as aggressively as possible."

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesCarl Edwards isn't guaranteeing a victory at Kansas, but he's coming close to it.

Unlike Smith and Patrick, Edwards doesn't need to prove he can consistently get it done at the Cup level, but the struggles of the No. 99 Ford team this season are unexplainable.

"I haven't stopped by the [speedway] casino because I'm sure I would lose," Edwards said. "I'm actually standing a little farther away from the car so my bad luck won't rub off on it. But it is a fast car."

Edwards' fall from NASCAR grace is a big mystery to everyone at Roush Fenway Racing. It didn't help things that crew chief Bob Osborne left at midseason to deal with undisclosed health issues. Osborne is here this weekend and looks good.

"Bob is here helping out," Edwards said. "I think he knows how important this race is for me. Bob is as good as any crew chief in the garage, but he had health issues. He has been working through those."

But the 99 team wasn't running well when Osborne was replaced by Chad Norris in July. Edwards has gone 64 races without a victory, the longest losing streak of his career. His RFR teammates -- Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle -- have won this season,and both made the Chase.

Something is missing for Edwards. It shows what a fine line exists in Cup between championship contention and mediocrity.

But a victory Sunday isn't out of the question. Kansas is one of Edwards' best tracks. He has six consecutive top-10s here, including three top-5s.

And who can forget his kamikaze attempt to beat Johnson in this race four years ago? Edwards dive-bombed Johnson entering the final turn but couldn't hold it, sliding up the track and banging the wall.

This is a home game for Edwards. He lives 130 miles away in Columbia, Mo.

"For us and for me personally, this race is as important as any race on the circuit," Edwards said. "A win here would be as big as any Daytona 500 we could win. This win is what we need to turn our whole season around."

Everyone needs something. For these three drivers, they don't need a miracle. They just need to show people something good.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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