Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ryan Newman needs to win before the season's end

No matter how much the Chase participants may not like it, every driver who didn't make the Chase is in a position to take a strategic roll-of-the-dice to win this Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Kansas Speedway. After all, when you can't run for the championship, all that remains is winning races.

Tony Stewart showed one method of how to do it at Kansas last year, stretching his fuel to complete 71 laps on the 1.5-mile track. He coasted under the checkered flag ahead of a group of cars who also had prudently saved fuel during a long green-flag run. Stewart says it's the only race he's ever won by saving fuel.

Who are the five drivers and crew chiefs with top-15 capable cars willing to make the most desperate moves to get to Victory Lane in the last eight races?

1. Ryan Newman. The Rocketman has gone through 73 straight races without winning. Penske racing teammate Kurt Busch has two victories this season, so the Dodge equipment is there to do the job, and he made the Chase, too. Newman had back-to-back second places at Dover and Pocono, but has gone 13 straight races without a top-five. The No. 12 changed the crew chief, switching to Mike Nelson, after last season, and you wonder how long it will be before the team begins thinking of changing the driver. Newman is safe for '08, but he needs to start building for it with a win this year.

2. Bobby Labonte. The winner of 21 Cup races and the '00 championship hasn't won since joining Petty Enterprises last season and his winless streak has reached 136. Even tougher to take is Labonte doesn't have a top-five this season, but he does have three top-10s. At the legendary Petty team, the expectations might be lower for Labonte among the media and fans, but this a proud organization that hasn't won since 1999. Labonte came to Petty to help turn the team around and a win would do it in one fell swoop.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior keeps acting like he's OK with running well -- he has seven top-fives, including a third at Dover last week -- but he doesn't want to depart DEI after going winless in a full season for the first time. Junior has gone 54 straight races without winning and needs to close the book on that streak before departing to Hendrick. It's certainly not the baggage he needs starting over with a new team and sponsors.

4. Kasey Kahne. This season's biggest flop needs to start rebuilding momentum and a single victory would do that. Kahne has only one top-five this season. Kahne won six races, all on 1.5- or 2-mile tracks, last season and five of the eight remaining races are on 1.5s. With Budweiser on board for next year, Kahne's future is secure at Gillette-Evernham, but it sure would reduce the pressure he'll face to get back to victory lane this season.

5. Greg Biffle. Biffle had an off season last year when he won two races, but missed the Chase. What do you call this year when he's gone winless? Terrible. Sure, Biffle is 15th in the points, but Roush Fenway teammates, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, have won races and made the Chase. Biffle started out with Pat Tryson as crew chief. The team fired Tryson, who joined Penske and guided Kurt Busch to the Chase, and Biffle has continued to have a lackluster season with three top-fives. He has too much talent to be where he is performance-wise. A victory in the last eight races would salvage something to take into the off-season.

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