Gordon's team will right ship in time

Originally Published: June 30, 2005
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

We're nearly halfway through NASCAR's season, and time is running out for teams to put themselves in the Chase for the Nextel Cup field.

In other words, there's no rest for the NASCAR weary.

Following the Pepsi 400 Saturday, many in the sport will scatter for a few days. Most will head back to North Carolina to spend the Fourth of July with family and friends, cooking out and doing the sort of things most people get to do on weekends.

For some, it will be a truly restful period. For others, it will be business as usual, thinking about race cars even if they aren't at the shop or the racetrack.

But there will be questions for all of them to answer. Questions about the rest of this season and what it might bring. Questions about how to make things better. Or questions about how to maintain the momentum they've slowly been building.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the questions that will be answered between now and the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Greg Biffle
Greg Biffle has already won five times in 2005, and he's showing no signs of slowing down.
Q: Can Greg Biffle keep up this pace?
A:
The guess here is Biffle won't win 10 races this season, but he'll win two or three more. But considering there are races left in Chicago; Michigan; Fontana, Calif.; Dover, Del.; Kansas City, Kan.; Atlanta; Texas; and Homestead, Fla., it really won't be a shock if he does hit double digits in the win column.

Still, it's hard to picture anyone winning 10 races with such parity in the field. Besides, the biggest threats to Biffle's dominance may come from within his own team. Either way, 10 wins may be a bit of a stretch.

Q: Will Jeff Gordon get back on track?
A:
It will shock virtually the entire sport if the four-time champion misses the Chase. He might not win it all, but he'll undoubtedly be in the mix by the end of the season. Sure, racing luck comes and goes, but the good teams often have a way of overcoming adversity.

Gordon should do just that. He's good virtually everywhere and his team hasn't suddenly forgotten how to set up his cars.

Q: Will talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s future ever subside?
A:
Nah, what fun would that be if it did? Junior's not leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. and he will start running better – just not soon enough to make the Chase.

Q: Is Carl Edwards the real deal?
A:
That's easily answered, and the answer is yes. The question is whether he can qualify for the Chase and win the Busch Series crown at the same time. Accomplishing both won't be easy, but Edwards' boundless enthusiasm will certainly help his cause.

Still, he needs the weather to cooperate in July, when he'll be racing his Busch car in Colorado one day and his Cup car in Long Pond, Pa., the next. Bad weather may derail his quest for the Busch crown and inexperience is the one thing that may knock him from the Chase field. Either way, Edwards will be a force for years to come.

Q: Will more than 10 drivers make the Chase?
A:
Don't count on it, even if NASCAR officials are hoping to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the field. Plenty of research went into determining the proper cutoff point, and the 400-point plateau behind the leader was designed with having only 10 Chasers in mind.

Of course, it was also undoubtedly assumed Earnhardt Jr. would be among the top 10 on a yearly basis. At this point, a lot of bad luck would have to befall Biffle and Jimmie Johnson for more than 10 drivers to be even within smelling distance of 400 points behind the leader by the 26th race.

Q: Will Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte get their seasons straightened out?
A:
Your guess is as good as mine on this one. Tony Stewart's win in Sonoma, Calif., has to provide a boost to the whole Joe Gibbs Racing operation, but winning a road course doesn't mean JGR is yet ready to consistently battle Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing on the downforce tracks that make up the majority of the schedule.

And Labonte's been caught up in a number of wrecks, meaning his team has been playing catch-up in getting its cars prepared. Still, his track record indicates that the second half of his season has to be better than the first has been.

As for Kenseth, top-10 finishes at both Dover and Michigan could be a sign that his team is already getting back on track. With the resources at Roush Racing, look for Kenseth to pick up the pace in the second half, even though he'll likely spend the last 10 races watching a few of his teammates battle for the championship.

Rusty Wallace
Wallace
Mark Martin
Martin
Q: Will Mark Martin or Rusty Wallace leave Homestead with the Nextel Cup?
A:
It would be a great story if either veteran could win the championship to end his full-time career. Sitting fifth and sixth, respectively, in points heading to Daytona, Martin and Wallace stand good chances of making the Chase as long as they remain consistent and don't get caught up in a string of crashes or mechanical breakdowns.

Martin was in the Chase last year and has an idea of what it takes to endure a 10-race season, which would likely give him an edge over Wallace. Consistency also favors Martin if it were to somehow come down to a veteran shootout.

Q: Is this Jimmie Johnson's year?
A:
If it's not Biffle's year to become the first driver to have championships in the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Nextel Cup Series, it's probably Johnson's year to snare the crown.

He's been in contention in each of his first three years and came within a whisker of winning it last year. You've got to figure it will be between those two unless someone else gets on a roll in the 10 races making up the Chase.

Q: So who could get hot in the final 10 races?
A
: Well, Elliott Sadler could turn things up a notch and start adding wins to go with his consistency, and Stewart's always a factor. And don't forget Ryan Newman. Or Kurt Busch, who only won the championship last year. Name a driver, and you can make a case for him if he makes the Chase.

Q: Who will be the next first-time winner?
A:
Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne joined the ranks of Cup winners this year, so the best guess is that the next new winner will have Hendrick Motorsports horsepower at his disposal.

That would leave Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers or Scott Riggs as the most likely candidates. Busch and Vickers have shown their ability at times this season and Riggs could be a threat this weekend based on his fourth-place Daytona 500 performance in February.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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