The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday July 31, 2006
Now that the final off weekend of the season is behind us, all eyes are focused on the next six races and how each one will affect the Chase for the Championship. Currently, 34 drivers are still mathematically in contention for a spot in the 10 race Chase to decide the title, but barring the current Top 10 drivers getting abducted by aliens or any other such freak occurrence, 15 drivers still have a shot at making NASCAR's version of the playoffs. While some drivers are a sure bet, others are riding a thin line, while still others will need a blessing from the racing Gods to make it in. So, which drivers are likely to make the field, and which will be left to duke it out for 11th?
Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Jeff Burton (3rd, 159 points ahead of 11th): Since the Texas race in April, no driver has been hotter and more consistent than the veteran Burton. With 14 straight Top 15 finishes, he's moved from 16th to 3rd in the standings as the Chase draws near. Whether it's a restrictor plate track, road course, short track or intermediate track, Burton can put up good results anywhere. That consistency and versatility should pay big dividends the rest of the season.
Kyle Busch (4th, 120 points ahead of 11th): No driver has earned more points in the last six races than Kyle, thanks to three Top 5s and no finish lower than 14th. The younger of the Busch brothers had his share of problems earlier in the year, but as the countdown to Loudon winds down, the 5 team seems to be getting better, and Kyle more mature. If he can keep up a similar pace for the next six races, the Chase will be a lock for this program.
Kevin Harvick (5th, 101 points ahead of 11th): Early in the season, Harvick started off cool; he got hot, then cooled off again, and now is back on a hot streak. That might scare some people off, figuring the No. 29 team is due for another cold spell, but they’ve managed to keep this latest streak going for the last two months. In the past eight races, Harvick’s earned six Top 10s and has moved up to 5th in the standings. Even if Harvick does take a little dip before the Chase starts, he should be in good shape.
Kurt Busch (13th, 166 points behind 10th): Busch has been on a hot streak as of late, posting Top 10s in six of the last seven races. But it may turn out to be a case of too much, too little, too late for the newlywed driver. After starting off the year on a rocky note with his new team, Busch earned one win early at Bristol but since then, hasn’t consistently peformed well. Even now that he’s running near the top, he’ll need plenty of help to make the final cut.
Jimmie Johnson (1st, 477 points ahead of 11th): While it's not “official,” Johnson is probably the only driver that is already securely in the Chase, barring some unforeseen catastrophe. But as history has proven, just because Johnson's good for the first half of the season doesn't mean he'll finish the year that way. Stats can be deceiving; for example, so far this year, Johnson's finished in the Top 10 in 16 of 20 races. That's impressive, but many times the No. 48 car limped into the Top 10 at the end of the race, which may mean this team isn't as dominant as their numbers would lead you to believe.
Denny Hamlin (8th, 52 points ahead of 11th): The two-time winner this season is poised to become the first rookie to make the Chase since its inception. With eight Top 10s and only 1 DNF, Hamlin is currently in the Chase but is by no means safe. He's finished in the Top 20 in the last 11 races, but finishes of 16th or 17th aren't going to cut it as time winds down and the competition becomes tougher and more desperate. Hamlin has the means and talent to make the Chase; the key will be whether he has the maturity and the luck to get there.
Jeff Gordon (9th, 50 points ahead of 11th): Wins at Chicago and Sonoma have helped Gordon overcome four DNFs, the most of any driver in the Top 15, but he still finds himself on shaky ground. In the last six races, he has four Top 10s and a 15th place run at Loudon. In the end, though, it may be his 40th place finish at Daytona, where Gordon was wrecked late in the race, that may be the difference maker. There is no margin for error with the battle this tight, and Gordon has already used up all his mulligans.
Greg Biffle (12th, 44 points behind 10th): After putting together a string of seven straight Top 10 finishes, Biffle found himself in 9th place in the standings. But in the last four weeks, his progress has stalled a bit, and he now finds himself trying to climb over drivers to claw his way back into the Top 10. He’s managed to do it once; the question is whether or not the team has it in them to do it again and land in the Chase. Even if he does, the question will be whether Biffle has any gas left in the tank to do anything once he’s there.
Matt Kenseth (2nd, 380 points ahead of 11th): It wasn't that long ago that it appeared Kenseth may have a shot at dethroning Johnson atop the standings, but right now, it looks like he's fairly well entrenched in second place. In the past six events, Kenseth has scored just one Top 5 finish, which begs the question of whether the 17 team is spiraling downward or simply pacing itself for the sprint to Homestead. I'd be willing to bet neither is the case, but it is hard to argue with the fact that right now this team just isn't as sharp as they were earlier in the year.
Mark Martin (6th, 95 points ahead of 11th): In the early stages of the season, Martin's quiet consistency was an asset, putting him as high as 2nd in the rankings at one point this year. But in the last seven races, it's been his quiet slump that should finally have fans talking. With only one Top 10 in that span, his hold on a coveted Chase spot isn't as secure as it once was. Right now Martin, is in the middle of a tight battle for position, and looking at how he's performed recently, he doesn't appear to be strong enough to fight off his challengers.
Kasey Kahne (7th, 53 points ahead of 11th): You would think the driver who leads the series in wins this year would be in a good position for the Chase. But that isn't necessarily the case with Kahne. Along with those four wins, he has eight finishes of 20th or worse in 20 races run so far in 2006. Half of those finishes have come in four of the last five races, dropping him to 7th in the points and into dangerous territory in the bottom half of the Top 10. Just think of the debate that will ensue this year should the leader in wins fail to make the Chase!
Tony Stewart (10th, 15 points ahead of 11th): With 42 other drivers out on the track, you would think Stewart's biggest obstacle in making the Chase would be outside the cozy confines of the Home Depot Chevy cockpit. But as things are right now, Stewart is his biggest enemy in his bid to defend his Nextel Cup title. Things just haven't been the same for Smoke since he was hurt in Charlotte at the end of May. In the eight races since, he has dropped from 5th to 10th in the standings, at one point falling as far as 11th, and has posted only three Top 10s along the way. Couple that with three finishes of 30th or worse, and you can easily see why Tony is in the ice box. But the key to his success will be if he can quit shooting himself in the foot, getting involved in wrecks and trash talking of his own making.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (11th, 15 points behind 10th): There's nothing like a cold beer on a hot day, but there are thousands of Junior fans out there right now that don't like seeing their Bud driver on ice, especially at this crucial time of the year. Junior was the benefactor of some other drivers' problems earlier this month and moved up to third in the standings. But two straight finishes of dead last have him dropping like a rock. Now, the team finds themselves on the outside looking in with just six races to go before the Chase starts. Junior and his team have definitely turned things around performance wise from last year, but now is the test to see if they have the fortitude to dig down deep and get themselves back into contention for a title.
Carl Edwards (14th, 235 points behind 10th): Edwards has made a valiant effort in his attempt to rebound from a 43rd place finish at Daytona to make the Chase. But as it looks right now, his bid may come up a tad bit short. Cousin Carl hasn't cracked the Top 10 in the standings at any point this season, despite having flashes of strong runs that made it seem like just a matter of time until he was there. But with two finishes of 39th and only one Top 5 in the last four weeks, it seems like Carl’s time to catch up may have run out…for good.
Casey Mears (15th, 292 points behind 10th): When the season kicked off, it finally looked like Mears was going to have the kind of season many thought he was capable of. Three straight Top 10s to start 2006 was good enough to keep him in the Top 10 in points until week eight, when all the mediocre finishes started to catch up with him. Since that early season spurt, he's only finished in the Top 10 twice and fallen to 15th in the standings. With too many so-so finishes, Mears has fallen out of serious Chase contention, but like they sayâ€¦ there is always next year (with Rick Hendrick, that is).
Just six races remain to decide who will be in the group photo after Richmond and who will be sulking in their trailers at the end of the night. Will drivers like Martin and Kahne, who aren't running up to snuff right now, give way to drivers like Biffle and Kurt Busch who are hitting their stride? Can Tony Stewart stay focused on the task at hand and keep his emotions in check long enough to make the Top 10, or will he self destruct? Once the Chase does begin, can Johnson and Kenseth maintain their position on top the standings, or will one of the other hot drivers in the Top 5 steal their thunder and take the trophy home in November? We'll just have to sit back and watch in the coming weeks to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not in the 2006 Chase for the Championship.
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