Saturday night’s race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway marked the final night race of the season, as well as the halfway point in the Chase for the 2006 Nextel Cup Championship. As the smoke cleared from a wacky weekend of racing, Jeff Burton continued to remain the class of the Chase field, with the rest of his challengers now looking to play catchup in the second half. Heading into Martinsville, second through seventh in the standings are separated by just over 100 points, so any little bump or bang this weekend could send the standings into a tailspin.
So, which drivers are warming up as the second half of the Chase begins, and which are cooling off, just hoping for it all to be over soon? Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Burton: After a tough break at Talladega, Burton returned to the top 10 with a fourth-place finish Saturday night. Now heading into Martinsville with a 45-point lead over Matt Kenseth, Burton’s lead continues to be built by consistency; he’s the only driver with four top 10s in the Chase. Jeff had a tough go of it at Martinsville in April, finishing 33rd after contact with Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch sent him to the garage. But with an 11.2 average finish in his career at the track, that run was more of an exception than the norm. Sunday marks a critical opportunity for Burton to pad his points lead; the competition might start to get a little scared if he’s able to pull out top 10 number five.
Kenseth: Other than Burton, Kenseth is the only driver that stayed in the same place in the standings after Charlotte. He had a so-so night, finishing 14th after handling problems and a flat tire to fall 45 points behind the leader. Long labeled a favorite to win the title, Martinsville could be key for Kenseth as the Chase enters the second half. He has only three top 10s there in 13 starts; if Kenseth wants to keep Burton in his sights, he’ll need number four this weekend.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick nursed a sick transmission in the final stages of Saturday’s race to move up one spot in the standings with an 18th-place finish. Third in the standings, this could be a do-or-die week for Harvick, who has just two top 10s in the first five Chase races. At Martinsville, he has three career top 10s… to go along with three finishes of 30th or worse. It’s the top 10 Harvick that needs to show up this weekend, or his chances for winning dual championships will take a chilly turn.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After getting off to a slow start in the Chase, Dale Jr. has shown its too early to count him out with two top 10s in the last three races. It very easily should have been three top 10s without the Talladega accident; regardless, this shows an improvement in the Bud team’s performance at the right time, as Dale Jr. heads to a track this weekend where he’s historically performed well. Gutting out a fourth-place finish at Martinsville this April, this is a track where Dale Jr. ripped off five straight top fives at one point in his career. Look for this race to springboard Dale Jr.’s charge for the championship… if he’s able to make one.
Kasey Kahne: Had it not been for two bouts of bad luck at Dover and Kansas City, the Chase outlook could look totally different for Kahne. As things stand now, though, he is trying to dig himself out of a pretty big hole. A second-place finish at Talladega and win six of the season Saturday night have Kahne 160 points behind Burton, but that’s still a large mountain to climb with just five races left. If there’s a bright side in this scenario, Kahne’s had a tendency to get on a hot streak this season, and this latest win could spark another one. But if the No. 9 car suffers an engine failure this weekend like he did at Martinsville this April, Kahne won’t have nearly enough time to recover.
Jimmie Johnson: Could Johnson’s first top-five finish since his win at the Brickyard signal a reversal of fortune for the No. 48 team? Johnson got off to a miserable start in this year’s Chase, but he’s been slowly fighting his way back into contention. Still 146 points behind Burton and seventh in the standings, he could make big gains this weekend at Martinsville, where he has both a win and eight straight top 10s among his career stats at the facility.
Denny Hamlin: It’s hard to say a driver caught a break by being involved in a wreck on lap 1, but you could make that argument in the case of Hamlin at Lowe’s. By getting in trouble early, Hamlin was able to get back on track with plenty of time to spare, watching other drivers fall out around him in what became an increasing battle of attrition. His 28th-place finish could have been much worse, but as things stand, he heads to Martinsville sixth in the standings, right smack dab in the middle of a traffic jam of teams hoping Burton falters. With no top 10s in the last three races, the No. 11 bunch now heads to the site of their worst finish of the year at Martinsville. How they react to the track this time around will be a true test for this young team.
Mark Martin: At one point in the race Saturday night, it looked like Martin would take over the points lead; instead, he took a hard lick into the outside wall, courtesy of JJ Yeley‘s ill-timed dive towards pit lane. Now 102 points behind Burton, Martin’s championship hopes have become a longshot at best. In his post-race interview, it seemed like he was throwing in the towel, declaring a title was just not meant to be for him. His full-time driving career is winding down, and Martinsville could prove to be pivotal in whether or not this pessimist’s words ring true. With just one top-10 finish there in the last seven races, things don’t look good. At least if that trend continues, though, he may be able to settle for just “having fun.”
Kyle Busch: Busch couldn’t have kicked off his first run for the championship any worse if he tried. But the “Shrub” has rebounded with three straight finishes of 11th or better to give himself a glimmer of hope, 195 points behind the lead with five races remaining. But the damage may already be done; even with his recent success, 200 points is a tough road to hoe. Busch DOES have two straight top 10s at Martinsville, but he’ll need plenty of other help if he wants to finish in the top five in the standings this year.
Jeff Gordon: Despite the fact that he has an excellent chance to win this Sunday, Gordon’s Drive for Five seems to be in park. He recorded his third straight DNF of the Chase Saturday night and his seventh overall, easily the most of any driver currently in the top 20 in Nextel Cup points. His latest mechanical failure at Lowe’s, an engine, dropped him three spots to last in the Chase, 216 points out of first. Gordon’s only chance of winning the title now is simply if Brian France announces he wants to suddenly invert the field.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
After Loudon, Tony Stewart held a 264-point lead over Biffle and 353-point lead over Carl Edwards, making the 11th-place trophy an unspoken lock for the No. 20. But thanks to a hot streak on Edwards’s part, he is only 213 points behind Stewart with five races to go. It’s still a sizable lead, but Edwards is making this battle a lot closer than many had imagined.
This weekend the series heads to Martinsville; it’s the smallest track on the circuit, but one that could pack a big punch in the Chase. Can Gordon keep his title hopes on life support with another short-track win, or will another DNF pull the plug? Will Johnson or Kahne be able to continue their charge towards the front of the Chase standings, proving it’s not how you start but how you finish that matters? Will Martin still be having fun… so much fun he stayed behind at Lowe’s?
We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not.