CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Having Kevin Harvick lead two teammates into NASCAR's Chase for the championship last year left team owner Richard Childress optimistic that one of his drivers could win the Sprint Cup title in 2011.
But the first month of the season has been rough for Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, who are both stuck at the wrong end of the Sprint Cup Series standings. They should be able to improve on their positions - Bowyer is 24th and Burton is tied for 29th heading into Sunday's race at California - but it's unclear if NASCAR's new scoring system is forgiving enough to give either a shot at rallying for a berth in the Chase.
NASCAR scrapped the scoring system it used since 1975 before this season in favor of a simplified method that awards straight points based on finishing position. The new 43-to-1 system rewards consistency and punishes poor finishes.
While Harvick sits 15th in the standings with 110 points, Burton has 74 after finishing a season-best 20th at Bristol last weekend and finds himself tied with Joey Logano, another popular pick for the Chase who is struggling. Series leader Kurt Busch has 150, and only 27 points separate the top-10 in the standings.
``We're in a deep hole, there's no denying that, end of story,'' Burton said this week. ``The way you get out of that? You're not going to wiggle your nose and magic happens. You've just got to go to work and you've got to make it happen.''
The tried-and-true method of knocking down strong finishes to climb through the standings could still work.
Greg Biffle was in precarious position last week, ranked 32nd in the standings before Bristol and openly worried about falling below the top-35 mark that guarantees a driver a spot in the field. Then he finished eighth at Bristol and jumped all the way to 23rd in points.
But there are plenty of crew chiefs who have feverishly run the math and figured out what their driver must do to earn a spot in the 12-driver Chase field. The first 10 spots this year will go to the top-10 in points, with the final two ``wild-cards'' earmarked for the winningest drivers not already qualified. Those two drivers, though, must be in the top-20 in points.
Juan Pablo Montoya has such a crew chief in Brian Pattie, who figures out before the season starts where Montoya must finish every week to earn a spot in the Chase. Two years ago, he had an average finishing established for every track.
This year, he's simplified it for Montoya.
``The way we look at it is that if you are a 20th place or above in the finishes, then you are in the good side of the points,'' Montoya said. ``If you finish below 20th, you are on the bad side of the points. So we know that, and our goal is to make sure we stay on the good side.''
Tony Stewart, tied for third in the standings, hasn't put that much thought into the system and probably won't until closer to the Chase cutoff race at Richmond in September.
``I don't know if I even really know what to expect, still,'' he said. ``We still know that if we win the race, we get the most points. Right now, we're just trying to have good finishes and have good top-five runs and try to win some races right now. When we get a little closer to Richmond, I'm sure weeks before that we'll start paying attention to it and have a lot better idea of how the system is actually working.''
Not everybody has that luxury.
Bowyer and Burton were both Chase participants last year. Jamie McMurray, who would have made the Chase last year if the wild card had existed, now sits 26th. And Brian Vickers, who made the Chase in 2009 but missed most of 2010 while being treated for blood clots, is 31st.
Carl Edwards, who already has one win and is second in the standings, has heard drivers are worried.
``Some of the guys who have had just a couple of bad races, how far back they are, I've heard that some guys are really concerned,'' he said. ``The bad days can have a huge impact. I think it will make for a little more nerves when it's all on the line.''

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