When it comes to volatility, Wall Street doesn't have a corner on the market. The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has had some wild swings of its own, and it's precisely this volatility that can offer hope to those who have yet to get their groove back.

On the strength of a tenth-place finish in Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr moved from 35th to 29th in the points standings. The 29th position is significant, because no driver has come from that far back after three races to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

In fact, only three drivers have made the Chase from positions lower than 25th after three races - Jeremy Mayfield from 26th in 2005, Martin Truex Jr from 27th in 2007 and Matt Kenseth from 28th in 2005 - but, no matter what the stats say, Earnhardt remains cautiously optimistic, despite a pit-road speeding penalty that likely cost him a better result in Las Vegas.

"We really, really needed it," he said of Sunday's top ten finish, "We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks in a row here where we can do that.

"We've just got to keep our heads on straight. The problem with speeding on pit-road is just trying too hard, and that can hurt you just as bad as not trying enough. We've just got to be smart."

There's something else that might give Earnhardt some wiggle room when it comes to making the Chase, namely that it's taking longer than usual for NASCAR's blue-chip teams to assert their dominance. No driver has put three solid runs together. The most glaring example is Kenseth, who won the first two races and finished dead last Sunday because of a blown engine.

With no driver able to post a top ten in all three races, a good finish means a meteoric move in the standings. Kyle Busch won the Shelby 427 and jumped twelve places to sixth. Fifth-place finisher Bobby Labonte also gained a dozen positions, to tenth, while a modest eleventh-place result vaulted Kasey Kahne ten spots to 13th, and Jeff Burton climbed 13 spots, from 31st to 18th by running third.

On the other hand, a blown engine and resulting 42nd-place finish dropped David Ragan from eighth to 24th in the standings.

One good week, and you're back in the game; one bad week, and you're wondering what hit you.

What accounts for the volatility? For one thing, the embargo on testing at NASCAR tracks cost drivers the seat time they typically get during organised pre-season sessions at Daytona, California and Las Vegas, the first three venues on the schedule.

As a consequence, both drivers and crews are showing evidence of offseason rust. Mistakes in the pits have multiplied, and even polished units such as Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's #48 crew haven't been immune to pit-road panic.

With little room to work with the aerodynamics and front ends of NASCAR's new racecar, teams have been testing the limits of their engines, and failures have been rampant.

Jack Roush, who owns Ragan's and Kenseth's cars, thinks the faster tyre combination Goodyear provided for Sunday's race might have exacerbated the engine issues.

"I think we misjudged how fast this tyre was going to be, and the engine turned more [rpm]," Roush said, "It's the same spec on the engine that we had all of last year. It wasn't something new or experimental. I had great confidence in it.

"We had it the last third of last year, but we saw more rpm with it in qualifying than we ever had and we saw more rpm in the race than we ever had. The tyre didn't fall off as much as we expected it to, so the tyre did a real nice job, but we just over-revved the engine."

The bottom line is that unpredictable variables - be they engines, tyres or lack of customary preparation - have played havoc with the status quo in the early stages of the 2009 season.

For those still mired deep in the drivers' standings, havoc means hope.

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

 

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