Commentary

Have to be in it to win it

Originally Published: February 5, 2013
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Take heart, 2012 non-Chasers. A few of you just might make the 2013 Chase.

The 12 NASCAR drivers who made the playoff field last year probably feel pretty good about their chances of making it again in 2013.

The odds are with them, but maybe not as much as you might think. Since the playoff started in 2004, the chances of making it back to the Chase the following season are about 62 percent.

That means on average, at least four drivers a season fail to return to the playoff a year after making it. The biggest change came in 2006 when seven out of the 10 Chasers from 2005 failed to get back to the playoff field.

The 2008 season was the only year in which less than three drivers changed in the Chase. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the only 2007 playoff drivers -- the year the field expanded to 12 -- who didn't make it in 2008.

Half the Chase drivers changed from 2008 to 2009, three years after NASCAR increased the field to 12 racers.

Last year there were four drivers in the Chase who didn't make it in 2011 -- Kasey Kahne, Truex, Greg Biffle and runner-up Clint Bowyer.

A changing of the Chase guard is coming, so here's my list of seven drivers who could make the 2013 Chase after failing to make it last year.

1. Kyle Busch: All is well in Rowdy's world. He has a new multi-year contract at Joe Gibbs Racing and a new teammate in Matt Kenseth, who should make him better.

Kyle has never failed to make the Chase in back-to-back seasons. He ended last year on a high note, finishing in the top five in six of his final seven races.

"We just need some luck on our side," Busch said on the media tour. "You have to have good equipment, but you also have to have some racing luck go your way. It's just a matter of the racing gods looking down on you."

2. Carl Edwards: From being the closest runner-up ever in 2011 (the first points tie) to outside the playoff last year, Edwards has something to prove after ending the 2012 season 15th overall.

It was the first time in six years Edwards failed to make the Chase and the first time he finished worse than 12th in the standings. Edwards also has gone 69 races without a victory.

So the pressure is on. He either proves he belongs with the elite drivers or falls into mediocrity. I'm guessing it's a return to glory, especially with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig calling the shots for the No. 99 Ford team.

"It seems like we have everyone in positions now where we can use them to their maximum potential," Edwards said last month at Daytona testing. "I know Jimmy wants to come right out of the box with a couple wins and get locked in the Chase, and so do I.

"That's the first thing on our minds. It's nice to have the [2012] Daytona 500 championship winning crew chief [while working with Kenseth] in our corner."

3. Ryan Newman: Nothing like a contract year to make a guy push a little harder to get the job done. Newman has a one-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing, so whether he returns to SHR in 2014 or gets a quality ride elsewhere will greatly depend on how he does this season.

Newman is a little less than 50/50 at making the playoff -- qualifying for the Chase in four of the nine playoff seasons. But he believes things will improve this year with Matt Borland back as his crew chief.

"Matt and I have a great past," Newman said on the media tour. "We have also failed at times, so we've learned from those experiences and that's why we're back together."

4. Kurt Busch: He's the first of my four surprise picks as possible 2013 Chasers. Everyone knows Kurt has the ability to make the Chase. He won the first playoff in 2004 and has been in the show six times.

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Doug Murray/Icon SMIKurt Busch has been in the Chase before and said he has a team that can get him there again.

The question is whether Furniture Row Racing is capable of making the playoff. No one-car team ever has made the Chase, but calling this a one-car operation is a little misleading.

Furniture Row remains based in the hinterlands (NASCAR-wise) of Denver, Colo., but it has a close affiliation with Richard Childress Racing. It's similar to the relationship Stewart-Haas Racing has with Hendrick Motorsports.

There are a few signs to indicate FRR is ready to step up. Busch finished ninth or better in the last three races for the team last season. Regan Smith had three top-10s in the No. 78 Chevy last year, but all three came in his last 10 races at FRR.

Busch believes good things lie ahead.

"This is the most comfortable I've ever felt [going into a season]," Busch said on the media tour. "It's a veteran group of guys and we all have that desire to do something special together. We all believe we can produce the results.

"We can just take what we need from Childress and do our own little things. It creates that lighter footstep where we can navigate more quickly. That's one of the upsides to being a smaller, competitive operation."

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: He's only a rookie, but he's driving for a team that made the Chase eight times and won a title in 2003. That team also won two Chase races last year as well as the Daytona 500.

Of course, that was with Kenseth and Fennig. Stenhouse is no Matt Kenseth -- not yet, anyway -- but he also isn't your ordinary rookie. He won the last two Nationwide Series championships for Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse will have engineer Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves is the man RFR officials see as their resident expert on the new Gen-6 car, which should help Stenhouse.

"We have to be consistent," Stenhouse said. "I think that's the thing I learned over the past three years racing in the Nationwide Series. You can't make big mistakes. You have to take what the car and track gives you at that time and go on.

"I think looking back over the last couple of years we really put ourselves in a hole when we tried to get too much. So this year I think we have to stick to our plan and be smooth and consistent."

One thing Stenhouse has to avoid is getting caught up in all the hoopla over his girlfriend, Danica Patrick.

6. Marcos Ambrose: I know what you're thinking. How can I list someone as a potential Chase driver who never has finished better than 18th in the standings and never has won an oval-track race?

[+] EnlargeMarcos Ambrose
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesMarcos Ambrose is looking for his first oval-track win and first trip to the Chase.

Simple. Ambrose is the best road-course racer in Cup and easily could win both road-course events this season. If he does, those two victories might be enough to earn one of the two wildcard spots in the Chase.

He won the last two years at Watkins Glen and should have won at Sonoma in 2010 if not for the infamous stalling-the-engine moment.

"We want to compete for a championship -- plain and simple," Ambrose said on the media tour. "I think we have a great team and a lot of continuity. There's no reason we can't make that jump [to the Chase]."

7. Juan Pablo Montoya: See above. Same reason, although I don't see Montoya having as strong a chance as Ambrose. Montoya finished four spots lower than Ambrose last year (22nd compared 18th for Ambrose) and had six fewer top-10s (two compared to eight for Ambrose).

However, Montoya has won on both road courses -- Sonoma in 2007 and The Glen in 2010. And Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has switched to Hendrick engines this season, which should help EGR become competitive again.

"I'm not going to come out and say that I'm confident we're going to have a great season," Montoya said. "But the way testing has gone; it's hard not to be excited. We're bringing back our whole team. That's very rare. I think that's going to be an advantage for us."

It's highly unlikely all these guys make the 2013 Chase, but chances are some of them will. One bit of bad news for the 2012 non-Chasers. No driver has won the championship after failing to make the Chase the previous season.

Hey, there's a first time for everything.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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