Sunday’s Dickies 500 blew through the 2006 Chase standings like a Texas tornado; when the dust settled, no position in the top 10 went unchanged. The rough and tumble winds meant that for many Chase drivers, it wasn’t such a beautiful day. Jeff Burton‘s title hopes took a major hit when a blown tire sent him into the wall on lap 88; it turned out he was merely the first to experience the wrath of Sunday’s twister. Mark Martin‘s fate was sealed just past halfway when he was caught up in a multi-car wreck, and Kasey Kahne had what little title hopes he had left ripped out of his hands due to a faulty engine with just six laps to go.
So, who else saw their title bid blown off course, and who was left standing after weathering the storm? Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson’s late season hot streak continued at Texas with another second-place run, his fourth straight finish in the top two. He had an early race scare when the No. 48 lost power, but a switch of ignition boxes quickly cured the problem and Johnson was able to motor ahead, taking the point lead from Matt Kenseth in the process. Now up by 17 with two races left, can Johnson and his team hold steady in the attack mode that got them this far? Phoenix has been good to them in the past; Johnson’s finished 15th or better in each of his six career starts at the track.
Kenseth: 12th place isn’t such a great finish, but when you had the kind of day Kenseth had at Texas… you take it and run. The trouble started on Friday, when the No. 17 qualified a distant 36th; a cloud of mediocrity hung over the team from that point on. They could never get the car to handle to Kenseth’s liking, and his pit road speeding penalty further crippled their efforts, dropping the No. 17 to the tail end of the field with fewer than 80 laps to go. Kenseth still managed to make it back to the top 10… only to get spun out in the final caution of the race, pushing him back to 12th.
Phoenix has been an up and down track for Kenseth; he’s got four top-10 finishes there to go along with four disasters of 32nd or worse. Can the No. 17 team land on the upside this weekend and keep the championship battle close heading to Homestead? If Johnson’s momentum continues, he’ll certainly need to.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior battled through the flu, a bad case of heartburn, and a brush against the wall that dropped him back to 34th to earn his third top-10 finish in the last four races. The sixth-place result keeps him within striking distance of the points lead, 78 behind Johnson and 61 behind Kenseth. A two-time winner at Phoenix, it sounds like Junior would be a sure bet to creep even closer this week… right? Maybe, maybe not. Along with his four top fives at Phoenix, Junior has four finishes outside the top 20.
Denny Hamlin: After a Chase “mini-slump,” Hamlin is back in contention for the title thanks to three straight finishes in the top 10. He seemed more comfortable at Texas than he did last weekend at Atlanta, but still had to battle at the end of the race to make the top 10, coming home 10th after avoiding the final wreck of the day. Heading to Phoenix, Hamlin sits fourth in the standings, only 80 points out of the lead; amazingly, the rookie is still in position to win the championship. But will the rookie pressure get to him as the season rounds out at two tracks where he has limited experience?
Kevin Harvick: Harvick rebounded strong from his poor performance at Atlanta, finishing third at Texas and moving up to fifth in the standings. But with a 105-point deficit still to overcome, he’ll have to get aggressive to have any shot at the title. I’m sure if you ask Scott Riggs, he’ll say Harvick won’t have a problem doing that; it was Harvick’s car that got Riggs aero loose and sent him into the wall with just a handful of laps to go while running in the top five.
As for this weekend, Harvick comes into Phoenix looking for the sweep after winning here in April; but that win was only his second top-10 finish at the track. If he can get a similar result this weekend, he still has a chance to be in the mix at Homestead… that is, if no penalties ensue from his post-race melee with a member of Riggs’ crew.
Jeff Gordon: Following three DNFs in a row, Gordon’s chances to win his fifth championship seemed to be a pipe dream. But after three straight top 10s, there is a small glimmer of hope in the DuPont camp these days. A ninth-place finish at Texas bumped him up to sixth in the standings, the highest he’s been since Kansas the first day in October. Still, Gordon finds himself 157 points behind his teammate, and that’s a tall order to overcome in the final two races of the year… especially running at two tracks he’s never won at. Gordon has top 10s at Phoenix in nine of the last 10 races…but he may need to crack the goose egg in the win column to keep the Drive For Five alive another week.
Burton: Everyone who said a few weeks ago the title seemed to be Burton’s to lose was at least partially correct. Burton has lost it, in large part to finishes of 42nd at Martinsville and 38th on Sunday at Texas. Sidelined after a blown right front tire caused the No. 31 to crash in a shower of sparks, Burton now finds himself 184 points back in seventh place. Phoenix will serve as Burton’s last ditch effort at the championship; the two-time Phoenix winner will need to pull number three off this weekend if he wants to pull off any sort of comeback.
Kyle Busch: His shot at winning the title practically went out the window after race one of the Chase, but I’m throwing Busch a bone here and moving him up one slot to celebrate his highest ranking in the Chase since the field was set after Richmond. Busch earned his first top five and just his third top-10 finish of the Chase at Texas, where he finished a solid fourth. The defending winner of Sunday’s race at Phoenix, look for Busch to keep moving in the right direction… although his title dreams are long gone.
Martin: Martin figured Talladega would be his downfall in the Chase, but, in fact, the opposite is true. His eighth-place finish at Talladega actually turned out to be his last decent shot at retaining any hopes of winning a title with Jack Roush. In the four races since, he has finished outside the top 20 in each, with luck that would make anyone scowl. Those hits just kept on coming at Texas… literally. Martin was caught up in a multi-car wreck just past the halfway point and finished 22nd; now, his only mission is to not go winless in a season for the third time in the last six years.
Kahne: If you don’t think NASCAR can be a cruel sport, just ask Kahne. With just six laps to go in Sunday’s race, Kahne was running second to Tony Stewart when his engine let go, ending any chance he had at this year’s title. Already down in the standings from his frustrating wreck at Atlanta, Kahne’s 33rd-place finish dropped him back even further; he now stands 10th, almost 300 points out of the top spot. At least the youngster still has a chance to hold on and earn the most number of wins this season with six.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
Stewart continued to make a mockery out of the race for 11th place with his second straight win and third overall in the 10 races since he was locked out of the Chase (insert a sigh of relief from the 10 drivers who did make the Chase here). Now 357 points ahead of 12th-place Carl Edwards, Stewart has that honor locked up. What is yet to be decided, however, is just how far back Greg Biffle will fall. He started the final 10-race stretch in 12th place, but now is in jeopardy of falling as far back as 15th if a Chase-long string of bad luck continues at Phoenix.
Next weekend, the Chase heads to the Valley of the Sun. Can Johnson stay hot in the desert, or will his late season surge towards the title only lead him to another disappointing mirage? Will his main rival, Kenseth, get back on track long enough to regain the lead in the final two races? Or will Earnhardt send the Junior Nation into a frenzy by winning his first title? We’ll have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not in the Chase heading to Homestead.