Chase hopefuls off to sluggish start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ryan Newman didn't purposely try to confuse anyone as he attempted to explain his expectations for the 2010 Sprint Cup season the way one would expect from someone with an engineering degree from Purdue.


"Two points define a slope," began Newman, already losing team owner Tony Stewart on the first day of the preseason media tour in January. "We have our point from 2009. Our point from 2010 will determine our success for Stewart-Haas Racing in years to come.

"Just going out there and having a lot better start to the season in Daytona is extremely important -- and getting definition and that second point so we can define our future at Stewart-Haas Racing is also important for us this year."

Translated: Newman was hoping to avoid another slow start and finish stronger.

Or to use his mathematical terms, the first point of his 2009 slope began with three finishes of 25th or worse that had him 33rd in the standings, 124 points out of the 12th and final spot for the Chase.

Not good.

Unfortunately for Newman, neither is the first point of his 2010 season, which has begun with two finishes of 34th or worse and a best finish of 18th, leaving him 32nd in the standings and 150 out of the 12th spot.

Not good again.

Just like last year, little things have gone wrong. Newman was caught up in a late crash at Daytona and finished 34th. A week later at California an engine failure left him 36th.

But Newman understands the second slope of the season won't be defined until the 26th race at Richmond when the 12-driver playoff field is set. It may not be defined until the final race. A year ago, that point had him 10th in the standings.

"I wouldn't call it a comeback, but we've got some work to do to get ourselves in position," Newman said. "We've got a long time before that issue becomes pressing."

Newman's not the only marquee driver with work to do as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Juan Pablo Montoya is 26th in the owner standings that determine the top 35, after being crashed by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray last week at Las Vegas. Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski, one of the hot free agents a year ago, is 29th. Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, is 30th. Marcos Ambrose, considered a dark horse to make the Chase after a strong 2009, is 33rd.

They're not just worried about rallying to make the Chase; they're worried about staying in the top 35 that guarantees a spot in the field. Another slip over the next two races and they could be on the outside looking in when NASCAR starts using 2010 points to rank drivers.

That added to Montoya's frustration over being wrecked by a teammate.

"The goal we had with the team this year was trying to be safe into the Chase before Richmond," Montoya told reporters in his native Colombia this past week. "We wanted to avoid being on the edge of being in or out coming to the final race before the cut.

"Looking at the amount of points we're behind right now, I would say it's not impossible, but it's definitely going to be harder. … If we can have four or five good races and finish in the top 10 and get some good points, then things can change very quickly. If I blow a tire and hit the wall at Atlanta, then it can get worse."

Odds are Montoya and others mentioned above won't have to look over their shoulders as far as staying in the top 35. The strength at this end of the standings simply isn't as strong as past years.

Behind Ambrose are Robby Gordon, Travis Kvapil, Kevin Conway and Max Papis, a mix of inexperience and drivers for underfunded teams. If one of those isn't guaranteed a spot after Bristol in two weeks, it won't come as a surprise or shake the NASCAR world.

If we can have four or five good races and finish in the top 10 and get some good points, then things can change very quickly. If I blow a tire and hit the wall at Atlanta, then it can get worse.

-- Juan Pablo Montoya

Not even Labonte falling out would raise eyebrows.

The pressure for Montoya, Newman, Keselowski and Ambrose is getting into Chase contention. That was the goal for each coming into the season, particularly Montoya and Newman, who have been there before.

The odds are against them. In six years of the Chase, only two drivers ranked from 29 to 35th after three races went on to make the playoffs. Both of those came last year when Newman and Mark Martin rallied.

Martin, who was 34th this time a year ago, actually made a run at the title before finishing second to four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

So it can be done.

What Newman and Martin had in their favor a year ago was performance. Outside of engine problems and wrecks, they had cars capable of competing for top-10s -- even victories -- during the first three races.

That's not necessarily the case for all on the bubble this year, but at least they know it can be done and they know the model to do it. It starts with sticking to the plan. The minute a driver becomes cautious to get good finishes, bad things seem to happen.

"Every driver has high situational awareness," Keselowski said. "That could be an immediate situation like conditions to make a pass on the track. Or it could be bigger-picture, which could be your position in points.

"We're aware of it. Any driver who says they don't know where they are in points is not telling the truth. I know we need a good run this weekend, and we need to bring home a clean race car, but my philosophy has always been to run the best you can and the points will take care of themselves."

In other words, don't panic.

Martin had every reason to last season, particularly after he finished 31st at Atlanta to dig his hole even deeper. But he followed that with six top-10s in the next seven races, including wins at Phoenix and Darlington. Eleven races into the season, he was 11th in points.

Newman, after finishing 22nd at Atlanta, went on a tear of 10 straight finishes of 16th or better. He was seventh or better in eight of those, moving all the way to fourth in the standings.

Does anybody on the bubble have that kind of potential this year? Newman is the best candidate. He knows he has good equipment, and he knows it can be done.

Montoya might as well. He has consecutive 37th-place finishes that could have been top-10s had it not been for an engine failure at California and a wreck at Vegas.

The rest? They'll need improved performance and luck.

"I know there's plenty of potential, and there's a lot of season left," Newman said. "The law of averages works out for everybody, except for Jimmie Johnson."

As far as Newman's slopes, a few bubble drivers from a year ago already are off to better starts. Joey Logano has gone from 32nd after three races in '09 to eighth, Martin from 34th to third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 29th to 15th and Scott Speed from 36th to 16th.

Those are numbers not even Newman can complicate.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.