Five races into the season – and 21 to go before the final cut for the Chase for the Championship – there already is a sense of panic for several drivers, particularly Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
All are mired deep in the Sprint Cup Series standings, and with the exception of Keselowski’s victory at Bristol, Tenn., earlier this month, none have shown any real signs of turning things around.
“There’s not much to talk about so far this season,” Gordon said. “Our cars, at times, have run really good, but it just seems like when we’re having good days something strange has come up that’s kept us from getting a good finish.
“There’s not an urgency, but we’re starting to feel a bit more pressure to start putting those good finishes together that I know we are capable of doing, which is the good thing.”
Even after Jimmie Johnson had his 25-point penalty for an illegal modification to the rear of his car rescinded during the appeal process, he’s still ninth in the current standings. For now, he’s just inside the top-10 cutoff.
Carl Edwards is outside the playoff picture in 12th place. Kyle Busch is 14th, Keselowski is 16th, McMurray is 22nd, Gordon is 25th and Kahne is 27th.
Since the Chase format was developed for the 2004 season, no driver has come from worse than 13th after five races to win the championship. Johnson made the biggest comeback in playoffs history, coming from 13th in 2008 to win it all.
Six of eight Chase winners were in the top six in points after five races.
Gordon started the season with a blown engine at the Daytona 500. He was knocked out at Bristol by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he finished 26th last Sunday at the Auto Club Speedway in Southern California after he was penalized for having equipment outside his pit stall. As Gordon pulled away from the pits, his gas man fell and dropped the gas can in the next pit stall.
“The toughest thing to deal with and the far more challenging issue is when you’re in the race Sunday and you’re running really bad and you’re running bad throughout the whole weekend,” Gordon said. “That’s far worse because it’s a lot harder to fix that than it is to get to the finish in one piece when you have a good car, good pit crew, good strategy being called. We will get those finishes. We are a good enough team where we’ll start to put them together. I think when they start to come, they’ll come more often.”
Kahne joined Hendrick Motorsports with plans of making the four-car operation a bigger powerhouse. His first five races haven’t come close to expectations. His best finish has been 14th at Auto Club.
“I would be down if my cars were slow,” Kahne said. “Wrecking has been the problem. Everyone in NASCAR has wrecks. My team is so good, there’s really no reason to be down, other than we’re not in the position we want to be in.”
Before the season, car owner Rick Hendrick said if all four of his teams, which includes Johnson, are expected to make the Chase. “If we don’t get it, it’s going to be our fault,” he said.
Greg Biffle leads the standings, followed by Kevin Harvick in second and Earnhardt in third. None have won a race this year, but together they’ve already combined for seven top-five finishes.
Gordon is still looking for his first top-five. And it needs to come quickly.
“It’s funny how every season is, you come into it and everybody’s confident and I feel like our team is better right now than they were last year, but yet we haven’t been able to show the results,” he said. “That’s not going to stop us from staying on that same path.
“You only have to do a couple little things to get yourself off or behind a little bit, and it looks to the rest of the world as if you’re struggling and you’re in trouble. We’re certainly not that. I would rather have this issue that we’re dealing with now than have an issue where we don’t have the speed and we don’t have a strong team.”