Some top names need to get on the gas


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Matt Kenseth proved last year that a driver can have a horrible start to the season and still recover in time to make the Chase for the championship. Stuck near the bottom of the standings, he used a frantic summer push to put himself back into contention.

As the Nextel Cup series starts a stretch of 14 straight races, several top-name drivers will have to follow Kenseth’s model or risk being shut out of the playoffs.

Eight of the 10 drivers who qualified for the Chase last season ranked in the top 10 in points after the fourth race of the season, and Kenseth (who was 31st) and Jeremy Mayfield (21st) were the only two to rally their way in.

Although the 2006 season is only seven races old, here’s a look at which drivers are in the biggest trouble.

1. Jeremy Mayfield (currently ranked 35th):

Mayfield made the Chase the past two seasons using solid summer runs to get in, only to struggle once the playoffs began. Even though he finished at the back of the Chase both years, there was still some pride in simply being eligible to run for the Nextel Cup title.

The way things stand now, Mayfield has very little to feel good about.

He has yet to notch a top-10 finish this season, and his best showing was a 16th last month at Bristol Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, teammate Kasey Kahne has won two races and Scott Riggs is ranked seven spots higher – despite missing the season-opening Daytona 500.

Car owner Ray Evernham says Mayfield is struggling with offseason changes the team made to all of its cars. Kahne has taken off with the new adjustments, and Riggs is also pleased.

But Mayfield is uncomfortable in the cars, and if that doesn’t change soon, his season will be written off.

2. Bobby Labonte (29th):

Everyone has high hopes for Labonte being the final piece in an aggressive turnaround effort at Petty Enterprises.

In his first season driving the No. 43 Dodge that Richard Petty made famous, Labonte has shown the potential for giving the company a lift. He was fast at Daytona and Atlanta – where he even led early – but has been hampered by bad luck.

Although he has two top-10 finishes, he’s wound up 30th or worse in his other five races. And at Atlanta, where he looked to have a car capable of winning the race, engine failure relegated him to a last-place finish.

Perhaps no one expected the 2000 series champion to contend this year. But Labonte thinks he can, and will need this stretch to prove it.

3. Roush Racing’s Greg Biffle (23rd), Carl Edwards (22nd) and Jamie McMurray (21st):

Biffle has been good this year, and his spot in the standings can really be blamed on bad luck – engine failure, an accident and running out of gas ruined three cars capable of winning. He also had a flat tire in Bristol that took him out of contention. But Biffle, who was runner-up to champion Tony Stewart last season, has enough time left to turn it around.

Edwards is iffy, especially since Roush Racing just shook up his team to help fix McMurray’s issues.

Edwards was spectacular in last year’s rookie season, teaming with crew chief Bob Osborne to win four races and finish third in the final standings. Yes, he’s stuck back in 22nd right now, but has three accidents to blame for his current woes.

Turning it around in time to make the Chase might not be so easy for Edwards now that Osborne has been reassigned to aid McMurray’s ailments. McMurray has not been competitive in his first season at Roush – and he broke in with a team that won the championship two seasons ago.

Perhaps Osborne can turn it around in time to save McMurray’s season – albeit at Edwards’ expense.

4. Ryan Newman (18th):

Much like Mayfield, Newman seems to be struggling with the handling of his Dodges. His Penske Racing team tried to circumvent the issue by giving him Intrepids to drive. But Dodge doesn’t want its drivers in the outdated model, and Newman must now get behind the wheel of the Charger.

If Newman can get comfortable quickly, he’ll make the Chase. But he’ll need to improve in several areas – including qualifying. He’s the best in the business at going fast for one lap, and has 35 career poles (eight last season) to show for it.

But Newman has yet to take the top qualifying spot this year. His best was a second in Atlanta – where he’s been almost impossible to beat – and he’s got four efforts outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (17th):

Busch has had some bad luck in his first season with Penske. He had chances to win at Daytona and Atlanta until accidents contributed to three of his finishes of 34th or worse.

He did, however, score a victory at Bristol. But winning that race meant bumping former teammate Kenseth out of the way. When he had contact with Biffle – another former teammate – at Texas two weeks ago it began to look like Busch has not kept any of the few friends he actually has.

That could be trouble when his Chase eligibility is on the line. Busch may not find too many friendly faces willing to give him the inch here or there that he may need to make the playoffs.

But Busch is a former series champion, and a skilled driver. He’ll do what he have to do to work his way into contention – regardless of who he alienates along the way.

AP-ES-04-17-06 1509EDT