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NASCAR: Four drivers already on the bubble in Round of 12

It's early yet for the Round of 12, but four drivers are already in trouble in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. They aren't exactly ham-handed, bumbling Bubbas who are on the bubble because they can't get the job done. Each is in the Chase fo...

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Hurricane weather permitting, wheels will turn in anger for the fourth of 10 Chase races on Saturday night in Charlotte. Nascar graphic

It's early yet for the Round of 12, but four drivers are already in trouble in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

They aren't exactly ham-handed, bumbling Bubbas who are on the bubble because they can't get the job done. Each is in the Chase for a reason and all have advanced by avoiding big errors and demonstrating consistency, but they are all in need of a spark in speed.

Hurricane weather permitting, wheels will turn in anger for the fourth of 10 Chase races on Saturday night in Charlotte. The points have been reset for all of the drivers, but when engines are fired for the race, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon know they need to step up in the speed department or hope for a reprieve at the always unpredictable third segment at the Talladega Superspeedway.

The other eight contenders have either led laps in the first three races of the Chase, finished in the Top 5, or, in the case of Martin Truex, Jr. and Kevin Harvick, won races.

Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing and Chevy drivers Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports have demonstrated they have the speed to win races, the surest way to advance. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano may not have been strong victory contenders in their Team Penske Fords, but they have led laps and finished in the Top 10 five times out of six chances.

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Betting on hitting a winning wild card at Talladega - instead of hitting the wall or another car - is never a good approach. So the next two races are critical for at least some peace of mind for the Chase drivers once headed for Alabama.

"You can't go to Talladega expecting a good finish," 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch said. Like others, he is looking to gain points on the field in Charlotte and then on a second straight visit to a 1.5-mile oval in Kansas City.

That may be an uphill struggle.

The No. 41 Chevy of Stewart-Haas Racing has finished 10th or lower in 13 of the last 16 races after being a regular contender in the first half of the season, including an opportunistic victory at the Pocono International Raceway.

Busch has recorded one win in Charlotte and none at the Kansas Speedway or Talladega during his 17-year career. Like his team co-owner, Tony Stewart, Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson have not been able to match the consistent speed of SHR's Kevin Harvick.

In the second half of the season, Harvick and others have found more speed, while Busch and Gibson have not kept up.

Austin Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team found enough speed at Dover to race their way into the Round of 12 - in part due to the misfortune of Kyle Larson. Over the course of the season, Dillon has recorded four Top 5 finishes and 11 Top 10s, including a rather heroic eighth place in Dover.

The question is whether the set-up in the new car built for Dover by RCR can carry over to the next three races.

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"Some of my best tracks are in this round, Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega," Dillon said. "To head into Charlotte Motor Speedway with a better shot at the championship is awesome."

Whether the driver means he likes these tracks, is relatively better on them or expects to perform well is a point in question.

Dillon and RCR have led only seven laps all year and none at these tracks. Dillon has yet to record a Top 5 in either Charlotte or Kansas and has only one Top 5 result at Talladega. So a lot is riding on whether the team continues to find speed in the Chevy entries for its driver.

One thing is in Dillon's favor. Now that he's in his third full season, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress has proven he doesn't rattle easily and has been able to run at the front on occasion, if not regularly.

Surprisingly, two in what can be considered the bubble group - Hamlin and Edwards - drive for JGR, whose Toyotas have been dominant throughout the season. Hamlin has won three races, including a season-opening Daytona 500 victory - and Edwards has won two.

Hamlin says that Dover was his biggest obstacle.

"We've got some good tracks in front of us," he said. "I think those are all tracks where I ran strong in the spring and I've had strong runs in the past."

Do the statistics back him up? In general, they do, both historically and this season.

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Hamlin finished 600 miles in Charlotte in fourth place this spring. He has no victories at the track, but six Top 5 finishes in 11 seasons. He was a contender at the Kansas Speedway before an accident - albeit of his own making - took him out in the spring. He has won there and has four Top 5 finishes.

Coming into Charlotte, Hamlin had two victories in his last 11 races and 10 finishes in the Top 10. But relatively speaking, his results of sixth in Chicago, 15th in New Hampshire and ninth at Dover were slightly underwhelming. Hamlin has led 406 laps this season, but only two in the Chase.

Hamlin and his team have found themselves playing a points game thus far, taking what they can get in order to advance. Perhaps that will change in the Round of 12.

Carl Edwards led 31 laps from the pole in New Hampshire, but his JGR team is still looking for consistency in races. His sixth place on the Golden Mile was preceded by a 15th in Chicago and followed by a 14th-place finish at Dover. Those results are not likely to advance him to the next round.

"We did not run well these first three races," Edwards said after Dover. "We really struggled. (Dover) is usually one of our best."

Edwards has led 773 laps this year to go with seven Top 5 and 16 Top 10 finishes. But the Chase is situational and currently his JGR team led by Crew Chief Dave Rogers has lost its edge. The team's two victories have come on short tracks, but the next ones on the schedule are not found until the Round of 8.

"You know, you want to run so well at these first two (in Charlotte and Kansas City) that you don't have to worry about the third one," Edwards said. "So, we've really got to lean on the notes from our spring Charlotte race. We've got to go out there and execute."

It's down to that. Execute or be exited from the Chase.

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By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

 

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