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The Cool Down Lap: After Richmond, these teams should heed danger signs

If Saturday night's Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400 was a dress rehearsal for September, there are more than a few NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that had better get their acts together before then.

If Saturday night's Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400 was a dress rehearsal for September, there are more than a few NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that had better get their acts together before then.

Don't look now, but we're 10 races into the 2010 schedule. After 15 more events, the Cup series will return to Richmond on Sept. 11 to determine the 12 drivers who will compete in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

There has been unprecedented volatility in the top 12 positions in the standings this year, but one piece of conventional wisdom has held true. There's nothing as effective as consistency in earning a position in NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

Just look at Matt Kenseth. He's fourth in the standings, 119 points behind leader Kevin Harvick, thanks to nine of 10 finishes in the top 20, six of which are top 10s.

Those currently outside the Chase, or those inside and trending down, could learn something from the No. 17 Ford team. It's not too early for the following teams to heed the danger signs.

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Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart's car drove like a tank en route to a 23rd-place finish at Richmond, and uncharacteristically so at the track that gave Smoke his first win as a rookie in 1999. Without as much on the line, the performance was strikingly reminiscent of the September 2006 race where Stewart could do no better than 18th and missed the Chase--then limited to 10 drivers--by 16 points. Stewart's best finish in the past five races is 16th at Talladega. Other than that, he hasn't done better than 23rd. Through 10 races, he's 15th in the standings, 307 points out of the lead and 53 out of 12th.

"We're just not where we need to be right now," Stewart said after the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet. During the second caution at Richmond (Lap 156), 18 drivers opted not to pit and took advantage of NASCAR's wave-around rule to return to the lead lap. Those drivers had made green-flag pit stops less than 15 laps before the caution, as had Earnhardt. Inexplicably, however, Earnhardt pitted under the caution, which canceled his right to take a wave-around. Under caution on Lap 172, the No. 88 team made the same choice, giving up a chance to get back on the lead lap in favor of a pit stop. An unscheduled pit stop on Lap 200, because of a cut tire, dropped Earnhardt three laps down. He finished 32nd and dropped out of the top 12.

Mark Martin, No. 5 Chevrolet. The 2010 season has been feast or famine for Martin, who has five finishes in the top six and four outside the top 20. Uncharacteristically, Martin drew a pit-road speeding penalty Saturday night--the only speeding infraction cited by NASCAR and one of only four penalties issued during the race. Having to serve a pass-through under green was a major factor in Martin's 25th-place finish. He fell four positions to 10th in the standings. Crew chief Alan Gustafson on Friday announced a four-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports, which should solidify the team. Nevertheless, speculation surrounding Martin and Kasey Kahne, who will take over the No. 5 ride in 2012, could be a distraction.

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet. Call it coincidence, but Johnson is 0-for-5 since NASCAR switched from the rear wing to the spoiler at Martinsville. What can't be ignored is that the No. 48 team hasn't had the best car in a race since winning the final event of the wing era at Bristol. Johnson, who finished 10th at Richmond, is in no danger of missing the Chase, but he won't win a fifth straight championship without a performance upgrade before the final 10 races. Johnson also has shown more willingness lately to mix it up with other drivers. On Saturday night, he and Clint Bowyer wrecked out of the final corner.

"Tough night to earn points tonight, where we had competitive speed--not dominant speed where we could run with leaders," Johnson said after the race. "Clint got inside of me off of (Turn) 4, and I could hear him in the gas and I wasn't going to let off. We touched tires and around we went, and, luckily, I don't think anyone hit anything hard."

Johnson, who has always seemed able to keep his car squeaky clean, has had at least one fracas in each of the past three races. Playing with fire may not be the path to a fifth title.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
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