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kingkaysar
06-02-2007, 02:56 PM
By Ricky Craven, Yahoo! Sports
May 30, 2007


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A few weeks back, I wrote of the value and significance the month of May has to the Nextel Cup drivers and teams. My view of this period in the schedule has always been that it is the month for teams to show us the goods, so to speak, and legitimize their strong starts – or, while racing close to home, get back on track and salvage any chance of making the Chase.

There was only one driver outside the top 10 when the calendar flipped to June last year who went on to make the Chase. The driver was Denny Hamlin, who stood 12th in the standings following last year's Coca-Cola 600, and he replaced Tony Stewart, who was positioned fourth.

Most would argue Hamlin's presence in the Chase was by virtue of winning both summer Pocono races. The wins certainly helped, but his run to the 10th position actually began in May. Finishes of second at Richmond, 10th at Darlington and ninth at Charlotte all helped Hamlin climb from 17th in points. Dale Jarrett, positioned 10th when the month began, had finishes of 21st, 24th and 43rd, falling to 16th by month’s end. He did not recover.

History shows that at this point the field for the Chase has become firm, and as we enter the dog days of summer, there becomes a bit of stagnation in the standings. As we continue down the schedule, the gaps between drivers will widen and fewer drivers will have visions of winning the Nextel Cup crown in 2007.

A look at performance over the last 30 days shows a similarity to last year's picture. Two drivers on the bubble for making NASCAR’s version of the playoffs are Kyle Busch in 11th and Jamie McMurray in 12th. Busch dropped from eighth in May while McMurray fell from seventh.
NASCAR has accommodated each driver by expanding this year’s field to 12 from 10, but that may not be enough if this three-race trend continues.

On the other hand, Carl Edwards serves as the only example of a driver making significant progress, moving from 12th to eighth.

Still, I believe Kyle Busch will make the Chase. He simply has too much talent and too good a team not too. He also benefits, down the stretch, from having done it last year. Kyle has the most difficult part of the equation figured out, which is speed. He has no problem outrunning cars around him. He does, however, struggle at times with the width of the track, and has been penalized for trying to make it wider.

I believed, before the year began, that Busch would be a title contender – maybe even this year if he learns how to better manage his race. Some of this comes with years under your belt, and some comes with being a study of the sport. One outstanding advantage Kyle has is the resource of having Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as his teammates. Each driver can be beat, but seldom do Gordon or Johnson beat themselves.

Kyle Busch can match their talent, but he falls short on matching their savvy. His title hopes hinge on making better decisions behind the wheel. He needs to make more of his bad days, bringing home an eighth-place finish with a 15th-place car. Wrecking the same 15th-place car while trying to win puts the team further behind. There is no doubt in my mind Kyle Busch will, one year, win a title.

Jamie McMurray serves as the feel-good story for the year so far. After finishes in the first two races of '07 that mimicked all of last year, McMurray found consistency and performance and made his presence felt in the top 10. The risk to Jamie, at this time, is losing that same momentum and starting to press behind the wheel. He needs to reestablish himself among the top 10 each week by racing his own style of race. Like Kyle Busch, he has great support in talented teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth and can use their recent success to help stay on track. There is, however, a fine line between asking for a teammate’s help and trying to convert to his setup or style. McMurray’s chances of making the Chase depend heavily on adding more top-five finishes to the two he currently has.

Carl Edwards is capable of winning at any track on the schedule, and finding one or two victories between now and September would go a long way toward cementing him in the title chase.

Carl’s May finishes were 12th, fifth and 15th – not overwhelming, but consistent. More importantly, if a 15th is your bad day in Nextel Cup, then things will be just fine.

None of these drivers will benefit from taking a defensive approach to the next 14 races. They have to put up strong numbers. Although only one driver advanced from outside the Chase at this point last year, there are several lurking with the appearance of being Chase-worthy. They include Dale Earnhardt Jr., J.J. Yeley and Ryan Newman, all of whom had a decent month of May.


Ricky Craven is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR analyst. Send Ricky a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.