Do you hear that noise coming from Daytona Beach? That’s the sound of Brian France giggling with glee that the Chase format has finally produced a tight points battle, with all 10 drivers still having a chance to win the Nextel Cup championship after six of 10 playoff races are complete. The tight Martinsville paperclip did its part to keep the points close, throwing a wrench into the Chase standings with the first seven positions in points changing hands by the end of the day. Perhaps the biggest makeover occurred at the top; Jeff Burton‘s championship to lose became lost for the moment, as he plummeted from first to fifth in the standings with an engine failure. Now, it’s a dogfight for the trophy, with the top eight drivers separated by only 99 points with just four races left.
So, which drivers are heating up as the number of races wind down, and who is cooling off at the wrong time? Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Kasey Kahne: Three weeks ago, it looked like Kahne had a better chance at winning the lottery then he did the Nextel Cup championship. But after his 33rd-place finish at Kansas, he’s had a reversal of fortune. Three straight top 10s, including a win at Charlotte, have helped him make up 174 points on the leader. He’s now only 99 behind new points leader Matt Kenseth heading into Atlanta this weekend, where Kahne will attempt a season sweep. With the momentum of four top fives in five Atlanta starts to go along with that win in the spring, Kahne finds himself in perfect position to get right back in the thick of the championship fight.
Jimmie Johnson: Following the first race in the Chase, people started whispering that Johnson would fail once again to close out the playoffs as well like he did the regular season. After his crushing 24th-place finish at Talladega, the whispers got even louder; Brian Vickers‘s bump put Johnson’s top-10 drought in the Chase at four races. But in the last two weeks, Johnson is starting to silence his critics. A runner-up finish at Lowe’s, followed by a win this weekend at Martinsville have Johnson bumped up to third in the standings, just 41 out of the lead with four races left. With five top 10s in the last six Atlanta races, Sunday should give him a good shot to quiet his detractors even more.
Kenseth: After six races in the Chase, things have cycled back around and Kenseth again finds himself with the points lead he last held at Richmond after scoring an 11th-place finish at Martinsville. Spectacular has not been the word to describe them in the playoffs, but the No. 17 team has been fairly consistent in the Chase; their worst finish has only been 23rd, at Kansas. That just might be the key to a second championship for Kenseth with a different driver having bad luck each week. Atlanta may be a track where he’ll have to work hard to stay consistent, though; Kenseth has two finishes of 30th or worse in his last four races at the track.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick has had to dodge his fair share of bullets in the Chase, but so far, he’s come out OK. At Martinsville, he had a faulty ignition box, a flat tire and a tire rub in different stages of the race, but still managed to finish ninth, his third top 10 in the last six events. That run pushed Harvick up to second in the standings, 36 behind Kenseth; but rest assured, he has plenty of competition right behind him, nipping at his heels to move ahead. That could be a bit unsettling for Harvick in Atlanta, where he has finished no better than 19th since the end of 2001.
Burton: With four top 10s in the first half of the Chase, Harvick’s RCR teammate took a 45-point lead heading into Martinsville. But that hard-earned cushion quickly went up in smoke, along with his engine on lap 217. Burton’s subsequent 42nd-place finish dropped him back from first to fifth, bringing everyone roaring right back into contention. The No. 31 team has been one of the strongest in the Chase, but they’ll have to work hard to correct the problems from last week, trying to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. At Atlanta in the spring, Burton ran well but eventually ran into problems, with a late visit to pit road sending him to a disappointing 25th-place finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After a strong run all day at Martinsville, an ill-timed pit stop cost Junior valuable track position, forcing him to try and make something happen in the final stages of the race. When it did, the results weren’t good. A spin on lap 478 while attempting to pass Kahne dropped Junior to 25th, and he had too little time left in the race to work his way forward once again. His 22nd-place finish wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great, either, a common theme for Junior in all six races of the Chase so far. Currently sixth in points, Junior is sandwiched in the middle of a tight points battle; his results at Atlanta, where he was third in the spring, will most likely set the tone for his final four-race push towards the title.
Denny Hamlin: Even down a cylinder, Hamlin was able to secure a second-place finish at Martinsville on Sunday, ending a streak of three races without a top-15 finish and moving him up two places to fourth in the rankings. However, mechanical issues seem to be creeping up on the FedEx team lately, and at tracks like Atlanta and Texas, he won’t be able to mask them like he did at Martinsville.
Jeff Gordon: Martinsville put an end to Gordon’s three race DNF skid, and his fifth-place finish, combined with Burton’s troubles, helped get Gordon back into the Chase on Sunday. But how long will that last? At times, the 1.5-mile tracks have been Gordon’s nemesis, and he’s facing three in the last four races, with the fourth being the final event of the season at a track he’s winless at. Following the race at Charlotte, when things looked to be over for this year’s title, the team planned to spend the last five races in test mode for 2007. Will they be able to make the switch in mentality after Sunday’s resurgence… or will they even try? Gordon’s car dropped off late in the race, and the team couldn’t make the adjustments needed to keep him up front. That’s not the sign of a championship team.
Mark Martin: Martin tried to mount a charge towards the front of the field on Sunday, but a hole in the radiator late in the going dropped him back to a 24th-place finish. With his second straight result outside the top 20, Martin fell three places in the standings to seventh, but remains somewhat in contention for the title. He has run well at Atlanta in recent years, and a good finish this weekend could really boost the spirits of the No. 6 bunch. But does this winless team and “lame duck” driver have the drive and desire still within them to make a serious title run?
Kyle Busch: After Sunday’s points shakeup, no driver is mathematically eliminated from the Chase, but Busch has been behind the 8-ball since Loudon in September and hasn’t made much progress to move himself away from the cue ball. He’s the only driver in the Chase without a top five in the six races run so far, and he’s one of three with only two top 10s. Even if Busch does manage to turn up the heat, his time is quickly running out.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
In the six races since the cutoff was made, Tony Stewart has only lost 18 points of his lead over 11th place. It was Greg Biffle who kicked off the final 10 races in 12th, but any hopes he had of overtaking Stewart are long gone, and he know finds himself 492 points behind Smoke thanks to three straight finishes of 32nd or worse. If he keeps going at this pace, he could be passed by Casey Mears and possibly Vickers. On the other hand, Carl Edwards went on a tear after Richmond and has ripped off four straight top 10s to pass his teammate. But even a good run like that is too little, too late, as Edwards remains almost 250 points behind.
Next up is the fastest track on the circuit, the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Will the Chase standings undergo a major overhaul yet again? Can Kahne and Johnson continue their hot streaks, proving it’s better to stumble early on in the playoffs and then watch everyone else come right back to you? Will Kenseth be able to maintain the points lead now that he has it back, or will one of the hungry drivers behind him steal it away? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship.