Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle are in deep trouble.
So are Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano.
Burton and Biffle are Chase For The Sprint Cup regulars. Neither McMurray nor Logano has ever qualified for the Chase.
But all four drivers are in the same leaky boat, and it’s unlikely that any of the four will be around for NASCAR’s postseason this year – at least by traditional means.
After disastrous starts to the 2011 season – compounded by pit-road mistakes in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – Burton and Biffle are tied for 31st in the Cup standings, 63 points behind leaders Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.
Under NASCAR’s new scoring system, that’s close to a race and a half out of first place.
McMurray and Logano aren’t in appreciably better shape. They’re tied with Regan Smith for 28th, 60 points behind Stewart and Busch. The likelihood of any of those four drivers scoring enough points to make the Chase is slim. The likelihood of all four doing it is nil.
If you think that’s a harsh judgment three races into the season, think again. In the seven-year existence of the Chase, only one driver has come from a points position in the 30s after three races and qualified for the Chase.
Mark Martin accomplished the feat in 2009, after consecutive engine failures and subsequent 40th-place finishes at California and Las Vegas dropped him to 34th in points.
Martin helped his own cause with four victories in the 26-race regular season that year, and that’s the same avenue open to Burton, Biffle, McMurray and Logano – just in a different way.
Yes, we’re just three races into the season, but it’s already time for those four drivers and their teams to adjust their mindsets. The truth is that they are far more likely to qualify for the Chase as wild cards than they are by scoring enough points to make the top 10 after 26 races.
Under NASCAR’s new rule, a driver can claim one of two wild-card Chase berths by winning the most races among drivers not already qualified while finishing in the top 20 in points. Those are realistic goals for all four drivers. Finishing in the top 10? Not so much.
It may take two victories to grab a wild-card spot. It may take one. The bottom line is that a driver now can turn a mediocre season around simply by winning a race, which McMurray did three times last year – twice in the first 26 races – and still failed to make the Chase.
That’s what makes the new wild-card rule the most intriguing change NASCAR made during the offseason.
If the wild-card rule may be a path to salvation for Burton, Biffle, McMurray and Logano, it’s a security blanket for Sunday’s race winner, Carl Edwards, who’s currently tied for third in the standings with Juan Pablo Montoya.
“A lot of people knock the new points system, saying they didn’t put enough emphasis on winning,” Edwards said after the race. “But when you look at it from the wild-card perspective (and) the bonus points in the Chase, those two things alone make winning extremely important right now.
“So for us, the thing I’m most excited about this win … is that we’ve got one in the column, in that win column, already, and if we do well enough, maybe win one or two more, we’ll be in a position to have that wild card no matter what happens at Bristol or Talladega, some of these tracks that we may not be in control of our own destiny.”