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Menzer: In reality, teams know if they're Chase-ready

August 22, 2011, Joe Menzer,

At this point in the season, drivers know if they are contenders or pretenders

Give Tony Stewart credit on this one. He only said what many already were thinking.

Shortly after the conclusion of Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, a television reporter offered muted congratulations to Stewart for a ninth-place finish -- knowing Stewart had hoped for better. Stewart, hanging on in 10th in the 2011 points standings, didn't bite on the half-hearted compliment as he assessed his chances for making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Kes wants more

Five top-10s in past six starts has Keselowski on the move in the standings and he wants that ride to carry into Chase.

"I will be perfectly honest," Stewart replied. "At this point of the deal, if we're going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not because we're going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who actually can run for a championship is trying to take -- because our stuff is so bad right now. We're wasting one of those top-12 spots right now."

Take heart, Tony. You are not alone.

With only three races remaining before the 12-driver Chase field that will determine this year's Sprint Cup champion is set, Stewart merely is dealing with reality. His No. 14 team has not displayed the teeth of a championship contender this season. He has yet to win a race, which means the pressure is on in these final three regular-season events -- because if he falls outside of the top 10 in points, he will need at least one win on his resume to claim one of the two wild-card berths.

Even then, Stewart and his team have lacked the overall consistency required to compete for a championship in the final 10 Chase races. Whether they are willing to be so blunt about it and admit like Stewart or not, so have several others who are contending for Chase berths -- namely Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin. They probably won't make the Chase now, but you also could throw Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard and David Ragan in there, too.

So who's left?

Yes, it's true that in theory any of the 12 drivers who qualify for the Chase could contend to end five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson's reign on the Sprint Cup throne. But like Stewart, let's deal in reality.

As we head down the stretch in the regular season, the real contenders have separated themselves from the rest.

There are four who appear to stand poised at the front of that pack -- and the list contains one major surprise in Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge is on a major roll. Kurt Busch, his moody and often fuming teammate at Penske Racing, basically called Keselowski out earlier in the season and said he needed a teammate who contributed more.

Keselowski has responded and who would have thought that as the Chase approached, his team suddenly would look like a more serious contender than the more experienced No. 22 team of the elder Busch brother? With two wins, Keselowski is a virtual lock to get in as a wild card but is closing fast on the top 10 in points and might qualify in that way by knocking one of the non-contenders such as Stewart or Earnhardt out.

But more on him in a moment.

The rest of the true Chase contenders can be divided into two groups -- the early favorites and the guys with a decent but somewhat outside shot of winning it all. Keselowski deserves to be in the first group but not at the head of it.

That would be Kyle Busch, who won his series-high fourth race of the season Sunday at Michigan and became the first driver to officially clinch a spot in the Chase. He is joined in the elite group by the always-lurking Johnson and Kevin Harvick, whose three wins early this season allowed his No. 29 Chevrolet team to spend much of the rest of the regular season gearing up for the Chase.

The next three who make up the second group of contenders are Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. Kenseth and Gordon have won two races each and have contended in others, but will need to be more consistent in the Chase if they are to truly make a run at the 2011 title. Edwards was a model of consistency earlier in the season, but suddenly is struggling with it and needs to return to his earlier form -- plus he's won only one race.

Who's the favorite?

Kyle Busch was asked following his victory in Michigan to handicap the upcoming Chase race.

"I feel like it's anybody's game right now still," he said. "Although the No. 99 [of Edwards] had problems [Sunday], they can still come back. They're still in the Chase, and the No. 99 is going to be tough. [The] No. 48 [of Johnson] is going to be tough. [The] No. 29 [Kevin Harvick] is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the No. 11 [Denny Hamlin] and he'll be good, too.

'It doesn't matter'

Tony Stewart shares his feelings on his Chase chances after the race at Michigan.

"Certainly, it's going to be a run down to the end, a run to [the final race of the Chase and the season at] Homestead. The points are tight. With any bad day it seems to hurt you so much that you really have to concentrate on battling back, getting yourself back up in the points. For us it's going to come down to being about minimizing those bad days and keeping our heads on straight."

He's right about Edwards. Don't count him out yet just because he's suddenly struggled the past few weeks.

He's right about Johnson, of course, and Harvick as well.

He's just being nice about Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And he forgot, perhaps intentionally, about Keselowski -- who has had one poor finish in his past six races while finishing seventh, ninth, first, second and third, respectively, in the other five. He's proven he can contend for wins, and settle for good finishes, on all types of tracks. That kind of consistency could win it all for him if he keeps it up, broken ankle and all, during the Chase. It at least makes him one to watch as the Chase approaches.

Hamlin, on the other hand, appears to be on the other end of the spectrum with Stewart. Even if they get in, they aren't likely to contend. They just haven't shown that championship-contending mettle yet this season -- and, as NFL coaches like to say late in their seasons, at this point you pretty much are what you are.

Asked what it would mean if he failed to make the Chase for the first time in his six-year Cup career, Hamlin seemed to realize this.

"That's part of the sport. How many Super Bowl teams don't make the playoffs the next year?" said Hamlin, who finished second after nearly knocking off Johnson last year. "It's just so hard because any time you're on top in our sport, there are 42 guys that are hungry to beat you. It's so hard in this sport, especially with as close as our cars are, as close as the driver talent is nowadays. One small thing that's a buckle in your program gets exploited by 10 or 15 positions.

"For us, I don't think we're that far off. Our teammate is winning races at this point. Our setups are close to his. But we have to figure out what makes me tick on the race track, what makes me happy. At this point we've struggled to find that in the last 10 weeks or so. There was a point in the season where we were leading a lot of laps, just not finishing because of pit-crew issues or mechanical issues -- things like that. Everyone in that department has gotten better; now the driver is making a few mistakes. Things like that, we have to put it all together in these next three weeks."

In other words, time is running out and teams scrambling to find the right combination this late in the game are in serious trouble. Chase or no Chase, it won't be long before teams such as Hamlin's and Stewart's will be uttering those infamous words: "Wait 'til next year."

And deep down, even they know it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.