Take a look at the standings following the first seven Nextel Cup races, and you get a pretty good idea of what two cars—- and car owners—- have stood head and shoulders above the pack. With seven Top 10 finishes in seven races (and an unheard of 13 consecutive Top 10s overall), Jimmie Johnson sits comfortably atop the points, head of the “young gun” Hendrick entourage. The championship leader for most of 2004, Johnson was the man to beat before slipping and falling into a 10-race slump. After a string of mechanical failures and poor performances that extended into the Chase and killed their title chances, Johnson is clearly driving like the 2005 Nextel Cup is theirs to lose. Early indications are, it is.
Over at the other end of the garage sits the second place driver in the points, leader of two-time defending champion Roush Racing—- Greg Biffle. Winner of two races this year, Biffle could have easily won four of the first seven, and with the new spoiler rules favoring a loose race car, the setups have fallen right into the hands of the man who drives every lap like it’s his last. Second in points, the man knows how to win a title—- he did it in the Busch Series—- and while he’s known for his aggressive driving, a style which gets him in wrecks more easily than brake-checking on the freeway, he’s established himself as the man to beat out of the Roush stable.
To show how much those two have dominated the early part of the season, all one needs to do is look at the points; Johnson is 135 points clear of Biffle, and 237 points clear of everybody else after only 7 races. At the rate he’s going, Johnson would be over 1,000 points ahead of the ninth and tenth place drivers by the time the points are reset for the Chase. Biffle, of course, is over 100 points clear of 3rd, and based on the numbers he’s put up this season (leading all drivers in laps led by a huge margin), he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The two drivers have won 3 of the 7 races, and if not for poor late-race decisions by both teams, could have combined to win 6, if not all 7 of the races won.
In past years, the battle for the Championship would already be set in stone. And if Johnson and Biffle keep running like they are, those last laps at Homestead will mean a lot more to the 48 and the 16 than just winning a race. But the amazing thing about the Chase format, at least based on early results, is it will give people in the Top 10 who under the old system wouldn’t have a chance at the title new life once we get to race 27, and make the accomplishments of a few runaways at the top null and void.
And that cast of characters shaping up to grab those final eight spots is an interesting bunch, indeed. For once, the new rules are putting more in the hands of the driver; these cars are so loose it’s taking the truly experienced to survive and not find themselves in a wreck or flat tires by the end of the day. As a result, if the Chase started today, we’d have four drivers over 40 in the Top 10 in points for the first time since the 2002 season. In an era where 40-something drivers are getting kicked out to pasture faster then you can complete a lap at Bristol, it’s heartening to see the old guard showing that they still have some life left in them, competing against a field that is increasingly half their age. For all we know, this could be the last season in NASCAR history that such a feat would be possible. Two of the four drivers currently in the Top 10 are retiring from full-time competition at the end of the year, with a third rideless for 2006 and the 4th considering ending his career after next season. So, let’s take a moment, and appreciate this back story to the season thus far, and consider the possible championship scenarios of the “old guns”:
You’ve got Rusty Wallace, smack in the middle of his “Last Call” retirement tour, quietly sneaking up to third in points with four Top 10 finishes. If there’s anyone who can benefit from the Chase system, it’s Wallace; in fact, he wishes it was around back in the mid-1990s, when the Miller Genuine Draft car won 10 races in a row for two consecutive seasons, only to finish behind the great Dale Earnhardt in points each time. Wallace’s Achilles’ heel in those seasons, as well as most any other since his 1989 title, has been the dreaded DNF. Year after yearin the 1990s, Wallace would prove himself to be the best-running car in the series—- only to have his engine blow for three straight races, killing his title chances. But Rusty has a tendency to go on the type of hot streak necessary for the Chase format, and with his final drives behind the wheel, who wouldn’t bet that the extra motivation could be enough to propel him to the second title he should have won over a decade ago.
Then, sitting in sixth is a man who three years ago was well on his way to his first Winston Cup title in his early 40s—- or so we thought. Sterling Marlin put on a dominating 2002 performance in which he led the point standings for most of the year, until bad luck started to bite him in the season’s second half. Gradually, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and others ate away at the points lead and took it away; still, most thought that Marlin would make a final charge in the last eight races to come back and grab the title. But Kansas Speedway had other plans, and a savage crash left Sterling with a brace on his neck and a seat the sidelines for the rest of a year that should have been his coronation. 2005 could be his last best chance at that title; Ganassi’s silence has already told Marlin he’s too old to be back in one of his cars for 2006, and Sterling will likely wrap up his career in the mid-pack rides occupied by such fellow veterans as Ken Schrader. Most of the NASCAR world clearly thinks Marlin is owed a title; the question is, will the Chase format give him a chance to get one?
Right behind Sterling, you have the second retiring driver from the world of Nextel Cup at the end of the season, and perhaps the biggest non-surprise of the four veterans. Everybody knew Martin’s team had it all together entering 2005, to the point where people were wondering why the driver would call it quits when he was on top of his game. But Martin has tired of the grind of Cup racing, similar to what happened to Bill Elliott a few years back, and wants to move to a more flexible schedule to help groom the Cup career of another Martin; his son Matt. While he hasn’t won a race, it’s clear that the Roush stable is stronger than it’s ever been, and with Jack Roush and Martin’s longtime friendship, there’s no doubt which Roush driver will have the best resources for the 2005 Chase. It’s hard not to root for someone that has just one shot left at greatness.
Last but not least, sitting in tenth you have Dale Jarrett, who is the most recent Nextel Cup champion of the group (1999) but who may have suffered the most of the four in the past few years trying to make it back to the top. Jarrett hasn’t seen the Top 10 in points since 2002, and a driver who was nearly unstoppable in the Ford Credit colors has been merely just another car on the track, for the most part, since UPS came on board in 2001. That contract runs out in 2006, and although Jarrett wants to run through 2007 there’s no guarantee UPS would sign with the driver for that long; it’s no coincidence those commercials about “driving the truck” seem to be heading towards a conclusion. Making the Chase, let alone a championship, would give Jarrett the flexibility to retire if and when he wants to, and put to rest the Shame Hmiel-like statements that he’s running out of time to prove he’s still got it.
There you have it. More than likely, 2005 will end up being the ultimate Roush vs Hendrick battle, with Johnson and Biffle the likely candidate to wage war in the Nextel Cup points. But don’t forget these other possibilities, for the Chase breathes life into more than just the top two. And with veterans all over the Top 10, you don’t want to gamble on giving these guys a second chance at life; they don’t have many chances left.
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