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AP Photo/Will Lester
Desperation time is now in parts of the Sprint Cup Series garage. That may sound silly considering the calendar, but in the Chase era, you can't wait for late summer to shake things up.
Struggling Richard Childress Racing, accustomed to putting three cars into the playoffs, swapped entire crews including crew chiefs between the No. 29 Chevy of Kevin Harvick (16th in points) and the No. 07 of Casey Mears (22nd). Bobby Labonte's No. 96 Yates Racing Ford, a Chase dark horse at the start of the season that now sits woefully 28th in points, moved Ford Racing field manager Ben Leslie atop the pit box to replace Todd Parrott.
There are only eight races down and 18 to go in Chase-qualifying season, but history says the grass doesn't get too much greener for those on the outside. In the five previous years of the Chase, at least 70 percent of the playoff players were essentially locked in after eight races. Last year, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman were in the top 12 after Phoenix, though they eventually bowed out and were replaced by Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, but the rest of the Chasers put themselves in contention early and stayed there.
Only one driver, Martin Truex Jr. in 2007, has moved from well back in points (20th) after eight races to qualify for the Chase.
For those outside the top 12, the stress is starting to set in -- and just in time for the most stressful race of the spring.
The series will be at big, bad Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for the Aaron's 499, bolting on the restrictor plates for the first time since the Daytona 500. Like at Daytona, one's day can go up in smoke and sheet metal with a miscalculation of a few inches. Only this time, the subsequent points hit will resonate more.
If a crew chief swap on the eve of Talladega adds luck, a driver will take it. Skill sometimes has nothing to do with it.
"I wish there was a seat right next to me where somebody like yourself could ride with me in these Talladega restrictor-plate races and see how intense it is inside there," said Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle, 14th in points. "I mean, you might as well bring a gun with you, because you want to commit suicide before you go through all the things that you go through on a racetrack like that."
That's a ringing endorsement for the place teammate Matt Kenseth calls "a 200 mph go-kart track." The 2.66-mile high-banked tri-oval is simply that difficult, that exhausting.
"I've had races at Talladega where my eyeballs hurt afterwards," said Gordon, a six-time winner at Talladega. "Your head hurts just because of the high level of concentration you must have for the entire race. Mentally, you have to prepare yourself for this race. And, during the race, you have to know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive."
It's an art form, albeit a fleeting one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is believed to be a plate-racing ace in the model of his father, but the driver who won five times and finished second twice in a seven-race span at Dega, including four wins in a row from 2001 to 2003, has only two top-10s in his past seven starts.
Harvick, whose 78-race winless drought has come to the forefront now that Gordon's smaller streak fell by the wayside at Phoenix, owns an average finish of 14.6 at Talladega (only Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are better among active drivers with five or more starts) but has finished no better than 20th in his past three starts.
"I go in with a real good attitude," said Earnhardt, who needs a boost from his 19th in points. "When you go into something with a good attitude, you normally get good results. Dad was real good at it. We always just put a little extra attention into those races and those race cars that we took to those tracks. We spent a little more time with them, and we just take it very, very seriously."
There's no other way to approach Talladega. Again, ride with Biffle:
"There's so much stuff going on all around you. You have two cars wide on the bottom. You're three wide. There's a guy outside of you. You're four wide. Is there another car looking on the outside of him to make it five wide? And then the lane that's moving in front of you, you've got to always be looking in the mirror to be ready for a guy to push you from behind. If you're not expecting it and that guy comes at you from behind, you're thinking about moving over a little bit, you move the steering wheel a tiny bit, the guy hits you, now you're crashing."
Maybe crashing out of the Chase, too.
Mark Martin: Ever play a round of golf with a crafty old-timer? Guy screws up the first hole or two and you think he's in over his head, but eventually he starts hitting every fairway and chipping the lights out while you're woefully inconsistent and about to lose to the guy by 10 shots. Four hours later, you go home shaking your head.
That's Martin this season. The 50-year-old had a terrible start to the year with three finishes of 31st or worse that included back-to-back blown engines, and some wondered whether he shouldn't have stayed semiretired. Except now he's riding a wave of four top-seven finishes, including a win at Phoenix, that have propelled him from Nowheresville in the standings to the cusp of the top 12. Granted, his bag isn't exactly filled with 7-woods -- the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy is a plum ride -- but still, this is the crafty old man taking it to all the young whippersnappers.
"There's a lot of competition out there. You just can't outrun those cats every day," Martin said. "I'm telling you, every one of them can drive and every one of them's got a good race car, and it's expecting a lot."
Yeah, but the wise guy still thinks that over 18 holes, er, 36 races, he's just as good. Through four races there was doubt, but through eight there isn't.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
David Reutimann: He'll never be the mouthpiece of Michael Waltrip Racing (oh, to dream), but the Reut is unquestionably its flagship driver.
Conventional Cup wisdom would have had the double-zero Toyota dropping an anchor somewhere in the past month and plummeting down the standings into, well, Waltrip territory. Instead, a 20th-place finish at Martinsville has been the not-so-terrible lowlight, and since then, Reutimann has driven to 11th at Texas and eighth at Phoenix -- his second top-10 in six races after having four in his first 65. He sits ninth in points.
"Sometimes you have to look back and just realize how good a top-10 would have felt a couple years back," Reutimann said. "We're at a point now where top-10s are great -- that's what you need to do."
Elliott Sadler: Do you figure he's still thinking about the Daytona 500? Not only about how agonizingly close he was to winning, but also that it was the last time his No. 19 Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge was relevant.
Since the fifth-place finish at the 500, Sadler hasn't finished higher than 20th or on the lead lap. It'll be a struggle for him to get to the 24th spot in the standings he had last year (he ranks 29th now), and soon he'll probably start to hear questions about where, or if, he'll find a seat in the series for next year.