Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Newton [Print without images]

Friday, February 27, 2009
Junior fans can start to panic


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton to push the panic button.

Don't kill the messenger. Just look at the facts.

In the five seasons since the Chase began in 2004, only two drivers outside the top 30 in points after two races have qualified for NASCAR's playoff. Denny Hamlin was 31st a year ago and finished eighth. Matt Kenseth was 36th in 2005 and finished seventh.

That's it.

Earnhardt is 35th, Newman 33rd and Burton 31st heading into Sunday's third race, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

I know it's early. Twenty-four races remain before the 10-race playoff. But odds -- appropriate heading to Vegas -- just don't seem favorable.

In fact, only two drivers outside the top 20 in points after two races made the 2008 Chase. Earnhardt was 23rd and Hamlin 31st, and neither was a factor for the title.

In case you're wondering, the five drivers from 30th to 35th a year ago were David Ragan, Hamlin, Robby Gordon, Sam Hornish Jr., Jeremy Mayfield and Dario Franchitti.

Hamlin made the Chase, Ragan finished 13th, Gordon 31st and Hornish 33rd. Mayfield and Franchitti finished without a ride.

Again, not a good sign for Earnhardt, Newman and Burton, although they have a better track record than everybody on that list outside of Hamlin.

While we're looking at numbers, Earnhardt hasn't made the biggest two-race fall from last season. That honor, so to speak, goes to Newman. He was second a year ago, a drop of 31 spots. Perhaps the best news for those on the outside looking in is the current top 12. Four of them -- Michael Waltrip (seventh), Ragan (eighth), Juan Pablo Montoya (10th) and David Reutimann (12th) -- never have made the Chase.

Two or three are sure to crumble, right?

The problem is, a lot of other people in between have to crumble as well.

I'm not saying it won't happen, but history is the only indicator we have here. So if you're a fan of Earnhardt, Newman or Burton and are wondering when it's time to panic, don't wait.

Push the button now.