Seven drivers building up hope
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Three races to go and three men left with a chance to win the Chase.
So here's something you haven't heard about: The other guys who have raced well in the Chase and made an impression down the stretch.
And some of them may surprise you: David Reutimann, AJ Allmendinger, Joey Logano and yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few. Some of them probably won't surprise you: Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin.
Allow me to explain with a detailed list:
Reutimann: He's finished in the top 10 four times in the seven Chase races, but the one thing everyone will remember is Reutimann taking matters into his own hands and wrecking Kyle Busch at Kansas.
Agree with his retaliation move or not, Reutimann stood up for himself and showed he won't be pushed around, even if it means taking out a Chaser.
By the way, Reuti was on his way to a strong finish that day before Busch caused him to wreck, which led to the payback move.
Allmendinger: He has two top-10s and four finishes in the top 12 in the Chase. That may not sound like a world beater, but considering all the turmoil his team has endured it's remarkable.
For the last three weeks, everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports has gone to work wondering if that day would be the last day for the team.
The financial stability and the long-term future of the organization remains uncertain, but everyone on the No. 43 Ford team has managed to stay focused and do the job at hand.
Allmendinger was headed for another decent finish at Talladega before a typical last-lap wreck sent his car on its roof, but he deserves praise for keeping the wheels moving forward and running well through difficult times at RPM.
"I'm just glad to be out of Talladega, to be honest," Allmendinger said. "That's a track I really don't enjoy, so I'm really happy to be at Texas this weekend. I think our mile and a half program is pretty good right now.
"We've got a couple of more chances to get ourselves in Victory Lane this season, and I think we've got a pretty good shot at it this weekend."
Logano: Frankly, a lot of people expected more out of Logano's sophomore season in Cup. He ranked 21st after the 26 regular season races. The Chase has shown the potential Logano has to become a future contender.
Logano has four top-10s in the Chase, including seventh or better in each of the last three races. He finished 11th at Fontana. His only bad finish in the Chase came in the opener at New Hampshire when he wrecked.
"Things are really going well for us right now," Logano said. "We've been consistent and continue to build momentum going into next season. When you look at our last seven races, if we were in the Chase we'd be sitting around fifth. That's a huge confidence booster for this team. We know we can do it, now we just have to continue to execute."
And don't forget he's 20 years old. Martin predicted five years ago that Logano will be a star. It's a work in progress, but Martin will be right.
Earnhardt: Is there hope for NASCAR's tormented crown prince? Maybe.
Junior has raced well the last two weeks on completely different tracks. He led 90 laps at Martinsville and finished seventh. He led the most laps at Talladega and had a car capable of winning before drafting a little too aggressively with Jeff Burton and causing a wreck.
Earnhardt started the Chase with a fourth-place finish at New Hampshire. He's also been good a Texas over the years with eight top-10s, including an eighth-place finish in April.
So things are looking up, but that's not necessarily a good thing for many of his fans.
A lot of folks in Junior Nation want team owner Rick Hendrick to make a crew chief change next season and replace Lance McGrew. That won't happen, if Earnhardt ends the season on a high note.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon stated the obvious Friday in the TMS media center.
"There's not a person in this room who doesn't know what Dale Jr. winning a title would do for [NASCAR]," Gordon said. "And throw Danica Patrick in there, as well."
McMurray: Without question, Jamie's had the best season of any driver outside the Chase. Some might say he's had the best season, period, with wins in the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Chase race at Charlotte. He has finished 11th or better in four Chase races.
What a year for a guy who didn't know if he still would be racing in Cup at this point one year ago. McMurray soon will sign a new deal with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, which will give him some extra zeros over his 2010 contract.
Martin: The old guy isn't done yet. Martin had to listen to seemingly-endless questions this year on whether he would lose his ride next year to Kasey Kahne. Martin said all along it wasn't happening and he was right, but the constant badgering may have hurt his results.
He has finished 14th or better in six of seven Chase races, but his second-place showing at Martinsville was his only top-5.
Martin will be 52 years old next season, but he's capable of one last hurrah in the 2011 Chase.
Newman: Here's an example of how inconsistency can hurt a team. Newman finished ninth or better in the first four Chase races.
He was the odd man out when the Chase began and looked like he wanted to prove he belonged in the playoff. But Newman has finished 23rd or worse in the last three races. He had a crash at Charlotte and a gear failure at Martinsville.
"We've had really good, fast cars," Newman said. "We just haven't gotten the finishes we have deserved. I'm not disappointed in our performance, just our finishes."
Where you finish is all that matters, but all seven of these drivers are doing a decent job of chasing the Chasers.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.