By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Teams that have struggled in this season's first two races are starting to worry that they may soon be out of contention unless their fates turn around.
And there still are 34 races left to go!
That shows just how ultra-competitive the Sprint Cup series has become.
There's an old axiom within the sport that how a team does in its first five races typically sets the tone for the remainder of the season.
But even after just two races, some teams are already in a bit of trouble heading into Sunday's third race of the year, the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Having finished 27th at Daytona and 39th Feb. 22 at Fontana, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already 252 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth, sitting a distant 35th in the standings.
"Two races -- it is tough when you get in a hole like we are, ain't no doubt about it, man," Earnhardt said. "All you can do is go back to the race track and hope that something good happens, hope that you can regain some ground. It is going to take a lot of races. You are going to have to string a lot of runs together to come out of the hole we are in, but we have done it before.
"It's very frustrating. We could have just as easily had two good runs. Either we beat ourselves or something bites us. Hopefully we'll be able to turn it around and get some runs together in the next 10 weeks that will put us back up in the top 15 if not in the top 12. I know damn good and well where I am sitting right now."
To show how important the early races are, 10 drivers of what would eventually be the 12-driver field for the Chase were in the top 20 following last year's race at Las Vegas. Only Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer were outside the top 20 but mounted rallies in the next 23 events to lock themselves into the Chase.
"I feel pretty good and pretty comfortable. I just need a little luck, too," Earnhardt said. "It just seems like I'm not living right. Just hopefully I can get things turned around and get my karma going in the right direction."
Earnhardt isn't the only driver looking for a quick turnaround. Several other drivers are also surprisingly mired in the bottom third of the standings.
Jeff Burton, who finished sixth in the Sprint for the Chase Cup last season, sits 31st in the standings, 239 points behind Kenseth.
"We know that good race teams run bad from time to time," Burton said. "I feel like we are a good race team. But there certainly is a sense of urgency. We ran well at Daytona; we just got caught up in a bad deal at the end. Then last week we ran terrible. This is a result-oriented business, and we need to put some results down. I wouldn't call it a sense of panic, but I definitely would think that a sense of urgency is a good way to describe it."
Burton couldn't pick a better place to get back on track: he's a two-time winner at 1.5-mile LVMS.
"If there is anywhere we should be able to come and perform at a high level, this is the track," Burton said. "It is a good place for us to come after a bad weekend, and we are looking forward to hopefully turning the corner a little bit."
Ryan Newman, who joined Stewart Haas Racing for this season, is tied for 33rd with Robby Gordon, both sitting 251 points behind Kenseth.
Having finished 36th at Daytona (where he won last year) and 28th at Fontana, Newman took the first step toward rebounding by qualifying sixth for Sunday's race.
"Hopefully this means the tides are changing for us," Newman said. "We've had such a run of bad luck the first two races, I would like to think that we're going to have some good luck this weekend in Las Vegas."
It's not just Cup veterans who are struggling. Celebrated rookie Joey Logano, who finished last at Daytona (crash) and 26th at Fontana, sits 37th in the driver standings.
"This is going to be one of those weekends where I am going to learn a lot," said Logano, who starts Sunday's race from the 20th position. He grazed the wall in the final practice session Saturday, but his car should be repaired by the time the race begins.
"If we can make gains from the start of the weekend to the end of the race like we did in California, we should be OK," Logano said. "It's the same approach I am going to take for the first half of the season and continue to build as I gain experience."
Added Logano's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, "If we can just do a little better every week from where we were, whether that is one position or five positions, that is improvement and that is what we need to do all year long."
Also finding himself in an early hole in the standings is Paul Menard, who left Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Yates Racing. Menard comes into Sunday's race 39th in the standings, 284 points behind Kenseth.
And let's not forget the Cinderella stories of Daytona, Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs. After qualifying for the first two races, both drivers failed to make the field for Sunday's race.
As a result, expect both to drop substantially further in the standings after the race. Riggs is 32nd in the standings, 242 points back, while Mayfield is 38th in the standings, 281 points back.
Failing to qualify was especially tough on Riggs, driving for rookie team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr.: Baldwin said he had enough sponsorship money for the team for just the first three races. Whether Baldwin and Riggs will be in Atlanta next week is up in the air.