Two races into the Sprint Cup season, and already there are teams in trouble. Top teams. Teams that have staked out an annual presence - or close to it - in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Yes, the season is only two races old, and there's plenty of time for struggling teams to rebound. That doesn't mean, however, that teams with alarming starts to their 2009 campaigns should ignore much-needed wakeup calls.

A look inside the numbers after Sunday's Auto Club 500 reveals plenty of danger signs.
Jeff Gordon is second in the points standings after two races, but none of his three Hendrick Motorsports team-mates stands better than 19th. That's the position three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson occupies.

Now, no one ought to suggest that Johnson will fail to qualify for the Chase this year, since he has never missed NASCAR's version of the playoffs, but his ship is in need of righting after a 31st-place result at Daytona and a ninth at Fontana, where the #48 Chevy dominated early and faded late.

The problem for Johnson is that the series heads next to Las Vegas, unquestionably his worst track in 2008. Johnson fought his car all day and finished 29th without wrecking or blowing up. The #48 team needs to find a solution to the 1.5-mile speedway in order to begin moving in the right direction.

The other two Hendrick teams - the #5 of Mark Martin and the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. - simply haven't gotten the results to match the quality of their equipment. This year was to be Martin's resurrection, with the 50-year-old contending for the championship with Hendrick in his first full season since 2006. He's 27th in points after an engine failure at Fontana.

"We had a great race-car tonight," Martin said after exiting the race. "It was fast, faster than the leaders most of the time. We were really trying to be careful and get up there when it counts. Then, after that caution, about two laps after (on Lap 179), we had a valve break."
The same happened to Earnhardt, who finished 39th, one position ahead of Martin. After two bad weeks (remember the wreck at Daytona), Earnhardt is 35th in the standings, 252 behind Matt Kenseth, the winner of the first two races on the schedule. Even more important is that Earnhardt's car is 35th in owner points just three races before 2009 owner points begin governing who has guaranteed spots and who doesn't. The top 35 are locked into Sprint Cup fields.
The #39 Stewart-Haas Chevy driven by Ryan Newman is barely ahead of Earnhardt in owner points. Misfortune has been Newman's problem. At Daytona, he blew an engine and wrecked two of his cars through no fault of his own. At Fontana, a side piece fell off his rear wing, forced an extra pit stop and ruined what otherwise could have been an excellent run.
The owner points position of Joey Logano's #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. If the heralded rookie doesn't improve by the time the sixth race of the season (Martinsville) rolls around, he'll have to start qualifying on speed.

"I learned a lot," Logano said after Sunday's 26th-place finish. "Just working around the racetrack, different lines, different grooves make your car do different things. Working the bottom, working the top, coming in the pits, it's things like that that you go by racetrack to racetrack to keep learning and it takes time."

With three races left before 2009 owner points kick in, time is in short supply.
1, 3 and 6:
Kenseth is the only driver to post top-five finishes at Daytona and Fontana. Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart are the only drivers to post top tens in each of the first two races.

Today, there are six drivers in the top twelve who didn't qualify for last year's Chase. And there are six drivers who did make the Chase last year currently in positions ranging from 15th to 35th.

Before the season began, Juan Pablo Montoya predicted this year's Chase would be the most competitive ever. Chances are he's right.

Yes, it's early, but those who have struggled in the first two races can't ignore the danger signs - getting back to the top of the standings will be more difficult than it has ever been.
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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