Eight Drivers Still in the Hunt
After a terrific Speedweeks that saw Kevin Harvick (above) win
the Sprint Unlimited and the first Budweiser Duel, Happy's
quest at the trifecta ended early in the Daytona 500. (Getty)
Of the 14 drivers currently sitting 30 or more points behind the leader, Jimmie Johnson, it could be argued that eight of those pilots are Chase contenders.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series roars into Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500, here's a look at the drivers that need to turn their season's around before the hill becomes too steep to climb:
No. 39 Kevin Harvick - Last in points, Happy looked like he'd be the driver to beat entering Sunday's Daytona 500. Winner of the Sprint Unlimited and the first Budweiser Duel early in the week, Harvick's bid at history was thwarted when he was taken out on Lap 34 during a multi-car pileup that took out 10 cars. Coming off a win there last November, Phoenix could provide the perfect opportunity for Harvick to rebound.
No. 38 Tony Stewart - Smoke was also involved in the Lap 34 pile-up, landing him just three points in the standings. But the Daytona 500 has been a fickle race for the three-time Cup champ (23.7 average finish), so the fact that he's off to a slow start shouldn't be much of a shocker. Phoenix has been a feast or famine track for Stewart over the years, 11 times scoring a top-10 in 22 career starts.
No. 36 Juan Pablo Montoya - After a pair of top-10s in 2009 and 2010, the Daytona 500 hasn't been very kind to the Colombian native over the last two years. Montoya never recovered from a 36th-place finish in last year's 500, so it's safe to say this Chase hopes did take a serious hit on Sunday. Phoenix has been a safe track for JPM over the years, though, with two top-10s and five straight finishes inside the top 20.
No. 34 Kasey Kahne - Many pundits choice to win it all this year, Kahne was the car that caused the crazy crash on Lap 34. Spun around accidently by Kyle Busch, Kahne took a hard left turn into traffic, ending the day for several drivers, including himself. This shouldn't be a season-buster for Kahne. Daytona has never been kind to him and with Phoenix on the horizon, expect to see Kahne back in the mix by Monday morning.
No. 32 Matt Kenseth - The only worry with Kenseth comes internally. Joe Gibbs Racing struggled on Sunday at Daytona, despite producing two of the best cars in the field: Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Kenseth led the most laps (86) and appeared to be well on his way to a second straight Daytona 500 victory before an engine issue forced him behind the wall. Given his 17.7 average finishing position at the one-mile tri-oval, it's not likely we'll see Kenseth rocket up the standings this week - but there's little question he'll be a contender as long as JGR can get things figured out in the garage.
No. 31 Kyle Busch - Remember when all he seemed to do was win? The tamer Kyle isn't producing like the more volatile Kyle did. And while there may not be anything to that, there's not denying that the No. 18 was an average car for much of last year - beginning with a 17th-place finish in the 500. It's an even steeper climb this time around, but like Kenseth, if things get straightened out in the garage, this won't be a second missed Chase in as many seasons. Three top-10s, including two top-fives in his last four starts at PIR should give the M&M's Toyota a boost of confidence.
No. 30 Carl Edwards - To say that Cousin Carl's fans are still waiting for things to turn around for the No. 99 Fastenal Ford are an understatement, to say the least. In what was likely the worst month in his motorsports career, Edwards leaves Daytona with the second-worst finish of his career there. Not since a last-place finish in 2006 has he left the 2.5-mile circuit in a worse position in the standings. But if there's ever a track that he can get things figured out it's Phoenix - the six top-fives, including a win in 10 career starts are a clear indication of that.
No. 26 Kurt Busch - What exactly happened to Kurt on Sunday, anyway? Well, while he is an outside Chase contender, he is still one of the best drivers on the tour. That being said, if he can't score a decent finish this weekend at Phoenix - where he has a win and 11 top-10s in 20 career starts - then it's probably not meant to be for the new face of Furniture Row.