Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Pocono, PA (Sports Network) -
Thirteen races down and thirteen to go before the 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship chase begins September 19 in New Hampshire. After last Sunday's 600-mile race at Charlotte, the battle for the 12-driver chase field is shaping up to be a good one.
Right now, the top-five drivers in points -- Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin -- appear to be in great shape to qualify for the 10-race playoffs, which concludes November 21 in Homestead, FL.
Harvick has been instrumental in the resurgence of Richard Childress Racing this year. He has been atop the point standings since last month's race at Richmond. Harvick considered leaving RCR after his disappointing 19th-place finish in points in 2009.
But things have turned around for the 34-year driver. He snapped a 115-race winless streak in April at Talladega. Last week, he signed a multi-year contract extension with RCR to remain as driver of the No.29 Chevrolet.
"This year, we kind of shed some of that bad racing luck that we had last year, and we've had some things go our way," Harvick said. "We just got to keep doing what we're doing, but we have to progress as a race team. We have to get better through the middle of the year, and we have to take another step toward the end of the year to be able to contend for the championship."
Since NASCAR replaced the rear wing with the spoiler on the current Sprint Cup car, beginning with the March 29 race at Martinsville, Joe Gibbs Racing has been on a tear, with teammates Busch and Hamlin combining for five wins in the last eight races.
Kevin Harvick considered leaving RCR after his disappointing 19th-place finish in points in 2009.
"I feel really good about where we're at," Kyle Busch said. "We had a win at Dover and third place [at Charlotte]. Now we go into the summer stretch. Some of the racetracks I don't excel that well, especially [this] week at Pocono. Hopefully, we can get some good runs at those places, and keep our momentum going from what we have so far this year."
But there's been big time drama at JGR lately, with Busch and Hamlin not being so buddy-buddy after their incident in the closing laps of the May 22 all-star race at Charlotte. Hamlin blocked Busch from taking the lead, with Busch scraping the wall and ending his chances of winning the $1 million prize.
An irate Busch waited by Hamlin's hauler for post-race discussion with his teammate.
Both drivers continued their feud days after the all-star race.
"Until [Busch] puts it all together, that's when he'll become a champion, but right now, he just doesn't have himself together," Hamlin said during a news conference prior to last Thursday's qualifying for the 600 at Charlotte.
Later that day in Charlotte's track media center, Busch was handed a FedEx package that contained a pair of boxing gloves in it before he participated in his weekly press conference. FedEx is Hamlin's primary sponsor in Sprint Cup.
Coach Gibbs has had his work cut out in resolving the issue between Busch and Hamlin. For now, there seems to be peace at the JGR camp, but any further skirmishes between Busch and Hamlin could serve as a distraction in the team's quest for the championship.
"[Kyle's] going to try everything he can to beat us, and we're going to try everything we can to beat him," Hamlin said. "Right now, I feel like we have the two best teams and cars, and the way we're running right now as far as championship caliber is concerned, we don't need to let anything derail us. We just need to kind of move on from that."
After missing the chase for the first time in his career last year, Matt Kenseth has been enjoying a comeback season with new crew chief Todd Parrott. But Kenseth, like Gordon, has not won a race in more than a year.
At the start of this season, Hamlin was considered as Jimmie Johnson's biggest threat for the title. Now, it's time to throw Kurt Busch's name into this year's favorites for the championship. Busch has been sensational in his Penske Racing "Blue Deuce" these past two weeks at Charlotte. He won both the all-star race and the 600-mile race there. Will his momentum continue at Pocono and beyond?
"For us, our game right now, this team is clicking on all eight cylinders," Kurt Busch said. "Right now, we've been doing good on tracks that I struggle on. I'm going to say I struggle on all the racetracks coming up so we don't beat ourselves."
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, has been in a slump lately. After crashes at Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte, he has dropped to seventh in points, one position behind Kurt Busch.
"Even last year, in my mind I felt like [Kurt Busch] is really somebody we need to be focused on for a championship, and I still feel that way," Johnson said. "They've been plenty fast at some tracks and then off at others. As they get more time together, they're going to lift the bottom line and be strong at every track they go to. Kurt does things on the track that prove why he's a champion and why he wins races."
Don't think for one second that Johnson's "drive for five" titles is in jeopardy. Remember, he won three of the first five races this season, so expect his Hendrick Motorsports team to quickly rebound.
With a separation of 298 points between eighth-place Jeff Burton and 22nd- place Paul Menard, the next three months are going to be very interesting as far as who will qualify for this year's chase.
Currently, Greg Biffle holds the ninth spot, followed by Mark Martin and Carl Edwards. Ryan Newman sits in the coveted 12th position, while Clint Bowyer is just four points behind Newman in 13th.
Martin Truex Jr. continues to be impressive in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, as he occupies the 14th spot.
"I think our chances are really good," Truex said. "I feel like we're getting stronger each week as a team. I know the 600 didn't go as we had planned."
Truex finished second in the all-star race after transferring from the 40-lap Sprint Showdown preliminary event. He finished 23rd in the 600.
Jamie McMurray has become one of the biggest point gainers recently. After three runner-up finishes in the last five races, McMurray has moved to within 26 points of Newman.
"Every race that we've actually finished without an issue, we've had a top- five car," said McMurray, who is in his first season with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "It's been incredible the speed that our cars have had all year long. We run second one week and 30th the next. It's just about being a little bit more consistent."
McMurray has been one of the feel good stories so far this season. Last year, McMurray didn't know who he would drive for in 2010 after his Roush Fenway Racing No.26 team folded tent at the end of the season. He landed a ride with EGR in the No.1 Chevrolet shortly after, and what a debut he made with the team by winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
While McMurray has been on the rise, his EGR teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, surprisingly has been on the fall. Montoya made the chase for the first time last year, but his chances of a repeat appearance in the playoffs are dwindling, as he continues to tumble in points.
Tony Stewart has been another surprise this year. One year ago, Stewart held the points lead and kept it for the remainder of the regular season. He finished the '09 season sixth in points.
Stewart, in his second year as driver and owner, certainly isn't in any danger of missing the chase just yet. So many times in the past "Smoke" turns to fire when summertime comes.
Joey Logano (18th in points) and David Reutimann (19th) remain in the thick of it, while Kasey Kahne (21st) likely won't make the chase for the second consecutive year since his Richard Petty Motorsports' team is not up to par this season. Kahne is leaving the financially-troubled RPM at year's end for a future ride at Hendrick.
While Hendrick drivers Gordon, Johnson and Martin currently hold a top-10 spot, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to slide in points. Earnhardt Jr. kicked off the season with a second-place run in the Daytona 500, but has posted only two top-10 finishes since then..
Sorry, Junior Nation. It's beginning to look like NASCAR's biggest star is going to miss the chase for the second year in a row.