It’s finally here: 203 days after the first race of the year at Daytona, 10,000 miles and 26 races later, the field for the 2006 Chase for the Championship has finally been set. No longer will fans have to watch the crawl at the top of the screen to see who’s on the bubble and who’s in the playoffs; the contenders have now been separated from the pretenders. All that’s left to settle this showdown is 10 short races, a sprint to the finish to determine who will walk away as the Nextel Cup champion after Homestead in November. With so little margin for error with the field so tightly bunched together, each week a driver’s season finds itself potentially on the line.
So, as we head into the first race of the playoffs at Loudon, let’s take a look at Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the upcoming Chase for the Championship.
Matt Kenseth: With two wins and four straight top 10s, Kenseth enters the Chase as the man everyone is gunning for, and the one many fans think will win it all. While he’s winless at Loudon, both his momentum and 10.9 average finish should keep him hot in the early stages of the playoffs.
Kevin Harvick: After three straight finishes just outside the top 10, Harvick grabbed the spotlight with his third win of the year Saturday night at Richmond. Already tearing up the Busch Series, leading that championship by over 600 points, Harvick’s been making plenty of noise in the Cup Series as well. Like Kenseth, he’s looking for win number one at NHIS, but six top 10s in 11 races there prove Harvick knows how to get out of the track with a strong finish.
Kyle Busch: Busch dominated Saturday night at Richmond, but lost on the final lap to Harvick as the playoff picture was finalized. He shouldn’t be too down, though: three straight top 10s, including two runner-up finishes, put him solidly in the Chase field. Kyle should continue to make some noise this weekend at Loudon, where he’ll be going for the season sweep. But will his inexperience cause him to peak too early in the Chase?
Denny Hamlin: Consistency was the key to Hamlin making the Chase in his first full year in Nextel Cup. Even when things looked bad for him at Richmond Saturday night, Hamlin still managed to score a 15th-place finish to make the Chase by a comfortable margin. His rookie status may now be both a blessing and a curse in the upcoming championship battle. Hamlin’s inexperience might hurt him, but not knowing what kind of pressure lies ahead will let the youngster go out and keep doing what has got him this far. With a sixth-place finish at Loudon eight races ago, expect Hamlin to stay in contact with the leaders early on.
Kasey Kahne: Thanks to a third-place finish and poor runs by some of his competitors, Kahne and his five wins claimed the final spot in the Chase. Kahne’s been hot the past four weeks, but his tendency to go cold is what put him in the precarious position of having to race his way into the championship battle in the final race. Loudon has been a good place for Kahne, with top 10s in all but one of his five starts; but could this team be due for a little letdown, since the urgency to make the Chase is gone?
Jeff Burton: Each week, it seems likes Burton is a front runner early in the race; but as the laps wind down to the finish, the No. 31 car falls back out of contention. Still, the Virginia driver battled back from a blown engine at Michigan that could have extinguished his Chase dreams with to score two top 10s in the last three races and sneak into the field. This weekend, Burton heads to a track where he’s more than comfortable, taking the checkered flag at New Hampshire three times already in his career. Win number four would certainly be a big boost for this team, finally giving them the needed momentum to finish races as strong as they start them.
Jeff Gordon: Had it not been for Tony Stewart‘s crash in the opening minutes of practice at Richmond, the No. 24 bunch might have been locked out of the Chase for the second straight year. Richmond once again got the best of Gordon with a 31st-place finish, but he was still able to limp his way into the title fight. As for this week’s race, Loudon has been a bit better for Gordon lately, but not great. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 in the last three races there, and Jeff will need to change that pattern so he doesn’t get too far behind early in the 10-race stretch run.
Jimmie Johnson: Like his teammate and boss Gordon, Johnson isn’t coming into the Chase hitting on all cylinders. He finished a disappointing 23rd at Richmond after he got bounced around like a pinball by Carl Edwards and Jeff Green, meaning Johnson now has just one top 10 in the last five races. While their Chase spot has long been secure, the No. 48 team should know better than anyone that coming into the Chase strong is important. Looking to turn his recent slump around this weekend, the jury is still out on whether that will happen: Johnson’s a two-time Loudon winner, but has only one top 10 at NHIS during the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior is another driver who avoided possible doom at Richmond to keep his hold on a spot for the Chase. Despite his three straight top 10s before Richmond, his lackluster performance Saturday night combined with his less-than-stellar track record at Loudon might put Dale Jr. behind early on in his quest for his first title.
Mark Martin: Martin is one of the only two drivers to enter the Chase with a big goose egg in the win column. His gutsy performance at Richmond moved him up to seventh in the standings, but his lack of consistency this year continues to be his Achilles’ Heel. With only 10 races to decide the championship, Martin can’t afford to keep riding the roller coaster he’s been on recently. As for this weekend, Mark’s been solid at Loudon in the past; but you never know what you’re going to get from the No. 6 team week to week.
Due to the simple fact that all 10 drivers have run well enough in recent weeks to make the Chase, nobody fits in the cold mold for right now. But not many mulligans are allowed in the Chase, so everyone needs to stay on their toes, or they could be feeling the chill very soon.
BATTLE FOR 11TH
Who would have believed that the drivers that finished first, second and third in last year’s standings would be relegated to fighting for 11th place this season? After falling just short of the Chase cutoff, Stewart takes a sizable 264-point lead over Greg Biffle into New Hampshire. Look for Stewart to increase that lead this week by turning his frustration from missing the Chase at Richmond into pure motivation at Loudon.
Now that all of the buildup is finally over, we can get down to business starting this week at New Hampshire. Can each of the drivers stay in contention after week one, or will some casualties occur? Can Kenseth hold his points lead for the third straight week, or will one of the youngsters make a bold move? Can veterans Burton or Martin finally find their way to Victory Lane? We’ll just have to wait until Sunday to see Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship.