Well, you can’t say NASCAR has failed to join in on the festive Halloween spirit. This weekend’s race at Atlanta certainly dished out plenty of tricks and treats for the 10 drivers battling for the Nextel Cup championship. While Tony Stewart stole the show in his fittingly-colored orange and black Chevy, Chaser Jimmie Johnson hooked onto his back bumper, both to continue his hot streak and take on the role of the kid who steals everyone’s candy at the end of the night. Several other Chasers had their share of candy handed out to them, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin; others, like Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne, had their candy ripped right out from under their fingertips. When the smoke cleared from the madness, though, it was Matt Kenseth who was holding the biggest treat of them all… a 26-point lead heading into Texas this Sunday.
So, who was able to scare up a good finish at Atlanta to keep their title hopes alive, and who had a disastrous run that turned their Chase chances ice cold? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Johnson: The wave of momentum the No. 48 team is riding continued on through Atlanta this week, where Johnson scored his third straight top-two finish in the last three races. As far back as 165 points out of the top spot just four weeks ago, the Lowe’s Chevrolet has turned on the afterburners, finding themselves only 26 behind Kenseth heading into Texas. With six career top-11 finishes in the Lone Star State in six starts, Johnson is on fire at the right time of the year for a change; time will tell if this hot streak will be good enough to finally take the title.
Kenseth: While his finishes haven’t been as dazzling as Johnson’s in the last few weeks, Kenseth has been consistent in the seven Chase races, and holds the point lead into Texas because of it. Other than Kansas, where he finished 23rd, Kenseth has all top-15 finishes in the Chase; but with Johnson running so hot, he can’t afford to let his guard down. The No. 17 team shouldn’t have problems at Texas, though, where Kenseth is not only a former winner, but has scored top 10s in four of the last six races there.
Hamlin: The young rookie admitted that he was uncomfortable for the entire race at Atlanta this past weekend, but he still compiled a phenomenal comeback, recovering from a lap down to charge through the field and finish eighth. Hamlin did still lose 18 points to Kenseth, but the finish was good enough to move him up to third in the standings with just three races to go. As for this weekend, the 26-year-old has limited experience at Texas; but in the two races he’s run there, he’s captured top 10s each time. Another one would be crucial, as Hamlin has seemed to get back on track in his title pursuit.
Earnhardt: Junior looked like a sitting duck when the rest of the field pitted with 20 laps to go in Sunday’s race, but he was able to make the gamble pay off, finishing third behind Johnson and Stewart. Tied for fourth place in points, 84 behind Kenseth, Earnhardt now needs to stop his season-long pattern of turning in a mediocre finish in the 20s after running in the top 10. With Texas on the horizon, he should be able to buck that trend. The site of his first career Cup win, he has finished outside the top 10 just twice at the track in eight career starts.
Jeff Burton: You can probably take Robby Gordon off Burton’s Christmas card list. While the jury is still out on whether or not Gordon littered on the track with roll-bar padding to bring out the caution on lap 290, there’s no mistaking the damage that caution did to Burton’s title hopes. He had to pit under green for a cut tire and was just about ready to pass race leader Stewart to get one of his laps back when the yellow came out. Pinned two laps down as a result, Burton slumped from a top-five run to a 13th-place finish that cost him 36 points to Kenseth. It once seemed like the title was Burton’s to lose; now, he will need a big finish to get back to the front after two straight bad races. As for this weekend, he was sixth at Texas earlier this year, but his performance there in the six races prior were shaky at best, with a best finish of only 12th. It’s clear Burton’ll need a lucky break or two to fall his way if he wants to contend with Johnson and Kenseth.
Kevin Harvick: Was Harvick wrong for leaving Atlanta early to attend the Busch Series race on Saturday? Did the missed practice time hurt his team’s chances for a dual title this year? We’ll never know for sure, but one thing is certain; his 31st-place finish at Atlanta did him no favors. Now 121 points behind Kenseth, Harvick’s chances at winning both the Busch and Cup titles is slim at best. His crew chief, Todd Berrier, said after the race that it’s hard to be optimistic for Texas when they “sucked as bad as we did today,” and he has a valid point. Not only are Atlanta and Texas similar tracks, in eight career Texas starts Harvick has just two top-10 finishes. Barring any major meltdown by the first five teams in the standings, it now appears Harvick will have to settle for just one championship this year.
Jeff Gordon: A couple of times in Sunday’s race, Gordon did not sound like a happy camper over the radio..and for good reason. He had contact with Joe Nemechek that sent him into the wall while leading the event, and then he got rear ended by Jamie McMurray shortly thereafter coming off turn 2. Certainly, there were lots of obstacles to overcome… but despite the overwhelming negatives, Gordon still managed to come out with a sixth-place finish. However, those three straight DNFs in October are still rearing their ugly head in the Chase; even with two straight top 10s, Gordon is still 146 points behind Kenseth and a longshot to win the title at best.
Kahne: I’m super sorry about your Chase chances, Kahne. After making the hot list last week, Kahne took a big hit at Atlanta this weekend in more ways than one. With three straight top 10s and a great track record at Atlanta, the stage was set for Kahne to make a late season push at the title. But just as he was making a move to the front of the field, Kahne made contact with David Stremme… taking out both cars and any realistic shot Kahne had left at winning the championship. He won at Texas earlier this year, but it will take a Texas-sized miracle to get Kahne back in the title hunt; he’s now 210 points out of first place in the standings.
Martin: Martin’s small glimmer of hope for a championship with Jack Roush were extinguished at Atlanta, when he was caught up in a multi-car accident with under 30 laps to go. His 36th-place finish was his third straight outside out the top 20 and puts him 201 points behind teammate Kenseth. Seems like Martin is simply racing for that final win in the No. 6 car so he can celebrate in Victory Lane one last time with the Cat in the Hat.
Kyle Busch: Busch turned things around for a short time in the Chase, but bad racing luck crept back up on him this weekend. He did a solo spin just four laps into Sunday’s race at Atlanta, and could only muster a 27th-place finish with Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolet. His best hope for the Chase now is simply that the other nine teams head to Phoenix this weekend instead of Texas; otherwise, his title chances appear nonexistent.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
Carl Edwards was trying to make a race out of this battle, coming within 246 points of Stewart following the race at Charlotte to put an ounce of pressure on the No. 20 team. But with his fourth win of the season at Atlanta on Sunday, Stewart once again widened his lead to 285 over Edwards in 12th place. 13th-place Greg Biffle put up his best finish in the last six races, but his fifth-place finish makes barely a dent in the lead the other drivers have over him.
Looking ahead to this week, you know what they say… things are always bigger in Texas. Does that mean Kenseth’s point lead will become even bigger? Can Johnson’s hot pace continue, or will he come back down to earth this weekend? Perhaps most importantly, will something happen to both of them to shake up the Chase picture yet again with just two races remaining? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase.