The Chase is set but who has a shot at winning it
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 12-driver field for this year's "Chase for the Sprint Cup" championship was determined after Sunday's final race of the "regular season," the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Two weeks ago after Bristol, it appeared to be a two-man duel, the "Kyle Busch vs. Carl Edwards Show," but after winning back-to-back races at California and Richmond, Jimmie Johnson has now made it a "three-wide" battle for the Sprint Cup title.
Busch enters the 10-race "Chase," which begins next Sunday at New Hampshire, as the top seed after winning eight races. His last win, however, came a month ago at Watkins Glen. At the half-way point of the season in July, there was much talk of Busch tying or surpassing the "modern-era" record for most wins in a season. Richard Petty (1975) and Jeff Gordon (1998) share the record with 13 wins. Busch finished second to Edwards at Michigan and Bristol. Despite a 15th-place finish at Richmond, Busch will be a strong championship contender as he held a 207-point lead in the standings before his points were readjusted to 5,080 for the "Chase."
"It's a lot better to be at the top than it is down at the bottom," Busch said. "That makes it look a lot prettier from our seat. Just to go out there and run consistently in the final ten races and race these other 42 guys that are on the racetrack with us and yet still keep track or try to out race the other 11 that we are trying to beat out for the championship here."
Edwards begins the "Chase" in the second seed with 5,050 points. He won six races this season but was credited with 50 bonus points. He was docked 10 points for his Las Vegas win as part of a penalty for his team's post-race violation. At Richmond, Edwards suffered a flat tire and fell a lap behind in the early-going but rebounded with a 13th-place finish. The "Chase" looks promising for Edwards as five of the tracks remaining on this year's schedule are 1.5 miles in length, and Edwards generally runs well at them.
The 12-driver field is set for the Chase.
With four victories, Johnson secured the third seed with 5,040 points. Last year, he grabbed the top seed in the "Chase" after winning at California and Richmond. He went on to win four of the last five races of the season to capture his second-straight Sprint Cup title. Johnson is entering this year's "Chase" as arguably the favorite to win the championship, and if he pulls it off, he will join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three titles in a row in the 60-year history of NASCAR. Yarborough won his titles consecutively from 1976-78.
"Now it's becoming more of a reality, Johnson said. "The less I can think about it, the better I'm going to be. The less I can think about all of the stuff that's coming up in the next ten races, the better I'm going to be, and just fall back into the confidence that I have in my race team and my abilities and the confidence that we are bringing to the track and give 100%."
While Busch, Edwards and Johnson play the role of "Chase" contenders, the remaining field might as well be labeled as "pretenders."
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton, who all won a race this season, begin the "Chase" with 5,010 points each.
Earnhardt, Jr. was impressive in the first half of the season with solid finishes, but has faltered in the last two months. He finished fourth at Richmond, scoring his first top-five since his victory in June at Michigan. He heads to New Hampshire fourth in the championship standings.
A 12th-place finish at Richmond allowed Bowyer to capture the final spot in the "Chase" as he finished 69 points ahead of 13th-place Kasey Kahne. He secured the fifth seed. He kicked off last year's "Chase" by winning his first Cup race at New Hampshire. Bowyer remained a title contender until Johnson went on his four-race winning streak at the end of the season. He ended the year third in points. Bowyer will need another strong start in the "Chase" if he has a chance to contend for the title.
"The last three weeks have been a step in the right direction, and, you know, with some momentum, I think we can do just fine in the 'Chase'," Bowyer said. "We are going to a race that we won last year and got the thing started on the right foot, so hopefully we can have a good run there and do just that."
Hamlin, starting sixth, has made the "Chase" in his first three years. Hamlin fell to 12th in the standings after a 39th-place finish last month at Michigan, but has finished third in the last three races to secure him a spot in the playoffs. If he continues to run strong, he just might be up there fighting for the championship in the season-finale at Homestead.
Burton begins the "Chase" in the seventh seed. He has struggled lately, scoring only two top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. He did finish sixth at Richmond. Burton needs to be consistent if he has any shot at winning the title. He came out of the box strong in the 2006 "Chase" before his luck ran out with engine failure at Martinsville. He was out of the picture in last year's title race after a disappointing 36th-place finish at Kansas.
Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are winless so far this year and enter the "Chase" with 5,000 points each.
Stewart had his best opportunity to pick up a win at Richmond but settled for a second-place finish. Stewart is leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to start his own team, and the communication flow between Stewart and his crew might not be the best right now, especially after what took place at Richmond.
"Can we for one week just leave it as we run second and we had a good, hard fought battle and we just fell short," Stewart said. "I mean, that's the moral of the story. Shoot, we could sit here for hours and try to dissect exactly why we didn't win the race."
Stewart heads to New Hampshire in the eighth spot and is hungry for a victory. If he gets on a winning streak at the end of the season, like he has in the past, he could be a surprise contender throughout the "Chase."
Biffle makes the "Chase" for the first time since 2005 and enters in the ninth seed. He finished second in the '05 title race, 35 points behind Stewart. Biffle has some promising tracks on the upcoming schedule as he scored the victory at Kansas last year and won three in a row at Homestead from 2004-06. He has also won at Dover and Texas.
Gordon is a four-time Cup champion but has yet to win a title under the "Chase" format. Gordon has competed in the "Chase" four of the first five years, finishing second in points last year and third in 2004. He failed to make the field in 2005. Gordon has not scored a victory since October 2007, so he's hoping his winning touch will return for the final races this season. He'll start in the 10th seed.
Harvick might be a surprise at least in the first part of the "Chase" as he has finished eighth or better in the last seven races. If Harvick remains consistent, he could go far. Harvick, starting 11th, has not won a Cup points- paying race since his Daytona 500 victory last year.
Kenseth enters the "Chase" in the 12th seed. He struggled earlier this season, but has rebounded to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year. Inconsistency continues to be a problem for Kenseth this year, especially after a 39th-place finish at Richmond.
This year's "Chase" should be a great contest among Busch, Edwards and Johnson. But any of the other drivers in the field could make things very interesting during the next couple of months.
After New Hampshire, the "Chase" moves on to Dover, then Kansas, Talladega, Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and wraps up November 16th at Homestead.