One-time Chase contenders looking like pretenders now

Hi, my name is Ryan.

Hi, Ryan.

And I have a confession to make.

I really, really thought that Clint Bowyer would be well inside the Chase at this point in the season. Ditto for Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch. I didn't originally believe that Ryan Newman would be there, but then he won the Daytona 500 so I jacked up his Chase stock … and like all the real stocks I've bought over the years, it hasn't done so well.

I also didn't think that Brian Vickers or David Ragan would be within 500 miles of the coveted 12th position in points. Yet there they are, knocking on the door. And the drivers I thought would be on the doorstep -- Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, and Elliott Sadler -- now have roughly the same chance to make the postseason as my daughter's bus driver.

I don't know. … I'm just so confused. Good thing I'm not alone.

"I thought when they expanded this deal from 10 cars to 12 the whole idea was that it would be easier to get into the Chase," says Bowyer, who stumbled three spots at Chicagoland and hits the pre-Brickyard break sitting 13th in the standings, 27 points shy of the promised land currently occupied by Denny Hamlin. "Just so you know, it's not easier. I'm totally stressed out."

So are most members of the motorsports media, who are being forced to watch our preseason ballots be burned to the ground as if the Martinsville Fire Department were conducting bucket-line practice.

Which brings us back to Newman. Here's a look at his season so far:
Date: Race -- Rank
Feb. 17: Daytona 500 -- 1st
March 16: Bristol -- 8th
April 27: Talladega -- 11th
June 22: Infineon -- 16th (105 points out of 12th)
July12: Chicago -- 16th (189 out of 12th)

Not since Ward Burton in 2002 has a Daytona 500 winner found himself in such a free fall. (Ward threw out the anchor to finish 25th in points.) Michael Waltrip almost did the same in 2001, when he closed out the year 24th, then nearly duplicated the disappointment in '03, winning his second Great American Race and landing in 15th.

Not the kind of company a competitor like Newman expects to keep.

"The most important thing to me is performance," he told ESPN.com's David Newton over the weekend in Chicago, discussing his disappointment at Penske Racing. "Winning a championship, achieving outside the goals outside of what I've done, which is a lot of poles and a win in the Daytona 500. I see potential to win a championship where I'm at. That potential just hasn't proven to be as high as other organizations. That's a statistical fact. It's just what I have to do to put myself in the best position to move forward."

In other words, "I'm outta here, dude." And that came to pass Monday with the announcement Newman and Penske Racing are parting ways at the end of the season.

Just as bummed is Busch, Newman's teammate of three seasons. Don't forget, it was Busch who set the Chase-excitement bar so high when he won the format's inaugural '04 title on the very last lap of the season.

Since then, his points finishes have been 10th (but only because he couldn't finish better -- Roush Racing canned him with two races to go in the season), 16th and seventh. He currently sits a distant 18th, despite winning at New Hampshire just three races ago.

"It is a mystery," Busch admits, expressing the same shoulder-shrugging confusion as Newman. "You know you have the talent, you know you have the tools and you know you have the people. Yet here we are struggling to keep up. It's trying, to say the least."

Especially when your little brother, the one you were barely talking to anyway, is leading the standings -- a colossal 843 points ahead of you -- thanks to the greatest individual season just past the halfway mark we've seen in a decade.

"He's having a great year, no doubt," big bro says with a smile that he might believe looks polite but that in reality resembles a newlywed trying to hide the fact that his wife's first casserole tastes like a fan belt.

One year ago, Truex was the feel-good story of the season. In the midst of the all-out range war being waged between his boss, Teresa Earnhardt, and his teammate/pal/guy-that-discovered-him, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Truex was riding high off a June win at Dover and on his way to making the Chase.

One year later, the No. 1 Chevy is the reigning "cheater cheater pumpkin eater" of the Cup garage, missing the Daytona templates for the July 5 race by one-sixteenth of an inch and now likely missing the Chase by the 150 points that were stripped because of it. (Yeah, yeah, I know the team is appealing. … Good luck with that.)

Before the penalty, the Clam Prince of New Jersey was 13th in the standings. Now he's 16th.


Behind Truex and Busch sits 19th-ranked Bobby Labonte, who likely already is thinking about the '09 cash infusion promised by new Petty Enterprises owner Boston Ventures, and 20th-ranked Montoya, who just saw teammate Dario Franchitti's entire team dropped by Chip Ganassi like a handful of lava.

Yes, I predicted JPM would make the Chase. No, that was not my greatest moment as a writer.

Finally, we reach a group of guys who aren't so much worried about getting back into the Race for the Chase as they are the race for a ride. I'm talking about Travis Kvapil, McMurray, Sadler and Mears.

Yes, Sadler is locked up at Gillett Evernham Motorsports with a newly signed contract. Yes, Kvapil is likely good to go at Yates and Mears and Jamie Mac will find jobs. But this group needs to start worrying about the ticking clock and their inability thus far to deliver on the promise they all showed us when they first burst onto the NASCAR scene.

Then again, one look at my '08 preseason Chase predictions and one could say the same about me.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.