With four Chase races in the books and some clear favorites shaping up, it's time to take a look at the other end of the spectrum: the drivers whose Chases are already over and done, at least as it applies to winning the Cup.
Whether through bad luck, equipment failure or simple less-than-average finishes, four drivers have pretty much iced their chances of winning a Cup this year. Why? Simple math. With six races left, you can start to project, place by place, exactly how well each driver needs to run in order to catch the leader, and it's a tall order indeed. Yes, miracles could happen, and yes, there could also in theory be a tree made of chocolate that sprouts dollar bills. I'm not holding out much hope for that, either.
Start with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the only driver who's even within a single race of the top. Junior sits 43 points behind leader Carl Edwards, meaning that he'll have to average about seven places better than Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and the rest for every single race for the rest of the season. Yeah, I don't see it happening either.
The other three drivers already out of the Chase, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, are all more than 43 points behind Edwards, meaning that Edwards could skip an entire race and these three wouldn't catch him. Gordon has had two bad races (including a blown engine that led to a 34th-place finish Sunday), and that right there is your mulligan and your Cup-killer.
Since an 8th-place finish at Chicago, Newman hasn't finished higher than 18th. And Hamlin hasn't been Chase material since last year, and just barely made it in this year. He's so far back that Edwards could virtually take two races off and Hamlin still wouldn't get him.
Does that mean the Chase, or even the season, is a failure for these guys? Of course not. Earnhardt, first and foremost, has exceeded all expectations of him, and can take tremendous pride in this year. Newman has also had a season at least equaling his expected finish.
Hamlin, on the other hand, has to be disappointed at how 2011 has turned out. And Gordon, who appeared to be a pre-Chase favorite*, is surely frustrated at how quickly a promising season can fall to pieces.
There's plenty to race for, of course; a top-10 finish any season is worth remembering. But for these four drivers — and, before long, a few others — it's time to start imagining what the 2012 Sprint Cup will look like in their trophy case.
*-There are rumors that I picked Gordon to win the Chase. In the immortal words of Kurt Busch, "I didn't say that. I did not say that."
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