NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s the Call? Dead in the Water After Race 1 of the 2006 NASCAR Chase?

Welcome to this week’s edition of What’s the Call? Each week, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

This Week’s Question: Can the first race in the Chase seal a team’s fate for the next nine races?

NHIS CAN Make or Break a Team’s Chase Chances

Amazing to think, but a whole season of hard work and hard racing really can come down to one event – and it’s not Homestead. Everyone knows there are 10 races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, but the first one held at New Hampshire has shown it can make or break a team and their chances to sit at the head table in New York come December.

For the team that comes out of New Hampshire with the points lead, suddenly they can do no wrong; they head off to Dover and beyond with their confidence at an all-time high. The driver can fit the car in half a car’s worth of on-track real estate, simply because he believes he can. The crew can also adjust the car aggressively because they are confident in themselves and their driver; they’ve passed the first test in a 10-race battle royale. Mentally, they have an advantage, because everything, at least for the moment, looks rosy, and a mental advantage can be huge for a team. Finally, they can breathe a sigh of relief, because they have made it through the first week without using their Mulligan that can be so crucial in this ultimate battle of consistency.

This early confidence has shown through in both previous years, as Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart left New Hampshire with the points lead during their championship Chase seasons.

On the other hand, the teams that had the bad luck in Loudon have a hole to dig out of at the start. Just as it’s easy to ride the wave of confidence, it’s easy to doubt. A driver suddenly doubts his team, his equipment, himself. The team can doubt the driver, the crew chief, even each other. Especially if a team was already struggling going into the Chase, a bad finish to start can be a hard hole to dig out of mentally.

History also suggests that NHIS is a bigger spoiler than it maybe ought to be. In 2004, Jeremy Mayfield crashed early and never recovered in the race for the Chase. Fast forward to 2005 and it’s the same story, different driver, as Busch was never a serious title contender after a hard crash at Loudon. This year, both Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson found trouble at NHIS, a track that has historically been very good for both of them.

Harbinger of doom? Maybe. But Busch and Johnson did something that Mayfield and Kurt Busch did not – they rallied more successfully to get back on track, fighting for every position, every point. By limping his damaged car home rather than parking it, Johnson gained nine points. To put that in perspective, Johnson lost the title by eight points in 2004. However, both men should be aware that only one of six drivers 90 points or more behind the leader after New Hampshire has finished the year in the top five in points under the Chase format; Carl Edwards recovered from 109 back after New Hampshire to finish third in 2005.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Jimmie Johnson's Luck Running Out at the Wrong Time... Again

So, Loudon is hardly the Track of Joy or the Track of Doom for Chase teams. It’s just the first step. But the attitude teams take away with them from the Chase’s first race can certainly make – or break – their chances down the stretch. Can Johnson and Busch rally back? Sure. Is Kevin Harvick‘s name already being engraved on the Cup? Hardly. But New Hampshire, with its stony countenance, can plant a seed in a team’s head, whether a seed of doubt or determination, and that seed has the power to blossom into a title… or, in Busch and Johnson’s case, grow into a stinkweed. This Chase is all about attitude and being able to carry – or shake – the mental state that a team takes home from the first race at Loudon.

Let’s put it this way – Johnson and Busch better be prepared for the battle ahead. – Amy Henderson

New Hampshire Can’t Seal a Team’s Fate

With the Chase for the Nextel Cup starting last weekend in New Hampshire, all eyes are on the Chasers and their performance week in and week out. There’s no doubt that consistency in the last 10 races of the season is a key factor in a driver’s quest to win the championship. No team is flawless, and Johnson and Kyle Busch proved that last weekend by finishing 39th and 38th, respectively. Johnson dropped to ninth and Busch dropped to 10th in the standings, and both find themselves well over 100 points behind points leader Harvick. So, does that mean their chances for taking home the big trophy after Homestead are over? Absolutely not!

There are 10 races in the Chase, and one bad race, especially the first one, can’t possibly determine the performance level for the remainder of the season. Look back at 2004, for example. Kurt Busch, the winner of the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup, started the Chase with a win, and jumped easily from seventh to a tie for first in points. He went on to finish fifth at Dover the next weekend… but still lost the points lead by one to Jeff Gordon. Such was Busch’s Chase experience that year… by no means was his title a cakewalk, as he ended up winning the championship by a measly eight points over Johnson. So, even though Busch won the first race of the Chase in 2004, he had to end up battling tooth and nail for the championship with a driver in Johnson who fell 249 points behind at one point during the final 10 races.

Last year, there was another such example of perseverance. Edwards finished 19th at Loudon and fell 109 points behind points leader Stewart… yet, by the time Homestead rolled around, he was the hottest driver on the circuit with two wins during the second half of the Chase. In the end, he recovered to finish just 35 points behind Stewart for the title in third place, showing the mediocre Loudon finish meant little to his Chase chances.

Fast forward to 2006. One race into the Chase, Harvick finds himself as the current points leader, but he only leads Denny Hamlin by 35 points. Kyle Busch, who sits 10th, is only 146 points back from Harvick. You can gain up to 156 points in any one race; so, unlikely as it is, Busch could still leave Dover with the points lead if he wins Sunday and all nine drivers ahead of him struggle. That’s how close he still is; by no means is Busch, or Johnson for that matter, reaching the point that they are mathematically eliminated for the title. With tracks like Dover, Talladega and Martinsville and coming up, there are too many wildcards to count anyone safely in or out of the Chase. For all we know, Harvick and the No. 29 team could struggle this weekend at Dover and drop one or more spots depending on the success of the other Chasers.

Racing is like the weather; anything can happen. There’s no doubt that Johnson and Kyle Busch have their work cut out for them, but there’s still nine races left, and that’s more than enough time to recover from their early problems. Of course, a few really bad races strung together can really hurt a team, and it’s imperative Busch and Johnson make sure they step it up this weekend. However, the first race of the Chase can’t possibly determine their team’s fate for the rest of the season. It’s just way too early… and way too close… to call. – Beth Lunkenheimer

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