Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. watch is over, the focus over the last 10 races of the year will be on the 12 drivers making a run for the Nextel Cup championship. With his second straight victory, Jimmie Johnson put the competition on notice that they will have to take on the No. 48 team in order to take the trophy that they earned last season. But with six of the Chase drivers finishing in the top 10 at Richmond, many others are proving to be up to the challenge of trying to take down the top seed.
So, who left Richmond riding high and ready for battle, and which drivers walked away wishing they had a little more time to prepare? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship to find out.
Johnson: After a summertime slump that saw him go 15 races without a win, Johnson has flipped the switch and heads into the Chase as the top-seeded driver with six wins on the year. Of course, that total includes back-to-back victories at Fontana and Richmond, giving him solid momentum heading into New Hampshire next week. The change for the better came for the No. 48 driver after he posted two straight DNFs at Chicago and Indy, dropping to ninth in the standings while watching both the team and his confidence plummet. But then, Chad Knaus returned from a six-week suspension, and the team’s been on a roll ever since, scoring four top fives in the last five races to put themselves back on the map. This hot pace will be hard to keep up as the Chase battle brews anew, but the No. 48 team is serving notice that they will be a force to be reckoned with as they go for two championships in a row.
Kurt Busch: The last time the series visited Loudon, Busch was 15th in the standings and seemed to be a longshot to make the Chase; but wow, what a difference two months can make. In those nine starts since the race in July, Busch hasn’t finished lower than 11th, scoring two wins in the process; that torrid pace gave him the fifth spot in the standings heading into the playoffs. It’s obvious that the No. 2 crew has a new attitude about them after the arrival of new crew chief Pat Tryson, and the results are showing up on the track. Car of now or Car of Tomorrow, short or intermediate track, this team is getting the job done – and Busch rolls into the Chase with a serious shot of stealing the title for Dodge.
Tony Stewart: While Johnson was suffering from the summertime blues, Stewart got his usual summer hot streak underway, leaving no doubt about if he was going to be back in the Chase this year. In the last six races, Stewart has racked up five top-10 finishes, with his “worst” run being a 13th at Fontana, where the team struggled to find the handling on the car until late in the race. Since then, the temperatures may be falling with fall around the corner, but Smoke’s performance is not. Remember, this team has been in the midst of the title fight before, and after missing the Chase last year, you know they are going to do everything possible to keep this roll going all the way to the trophy at Homestead.
Denny Hamlin: In the last six races, Hamlin has put up some very impressive stats; four top-10 finishes and one DNF. It’s pretty obvious why the top 10s are important; top 10s lead to top fives, which lead to wins, which lead to longterm gains. But the DNF? What is so impressive about that particular stat is the fact that his blown engine at Bristol marked only his second career DNF. It’s that kind of consistency that has allowed Hamlin to make the Chase in his first two seasons in Nextel Cup. He has just one win this season, which came at Loudon nine races ago, but consistent top fives and top 10s without the big disasters could prove key to his Chase success.
Carl Edwards: Have you ever seen a happier driver sitting in the garage with a blown motor during a race than Edwards Saturday night? Of course, why wouldn’t he be smiling? He led 15 laps of the race at Richmond before the engine let go, and he heads into the Chase on a roll with four top 10s in the last five races, his longest streak all season. With wins at Bristol and Michigan, Edwards has shown he can get the job done on a variety of tracks this season. He’ll have plenty of competition in the Chase from the bowtie brigade, however; but, if one of the blue-oval drivers is going to steal the title, it very well could be Edwards, as he looks to make up for last year’s disappointment of not making the Chase.
Jeff Gordon: After leading the standings since week five, Gordon relinquished the top spot to his teammate Johnson following the seeding of the 12 drivers in the Chase. While twenty points isn’t a huge deficit to overcome, Gordon really shouldn’t have been in this position in the first place, however. He gave up a win at Watkins Glen, which would have tied him with Johnson for the lead at the time, and he’s looked a little more inconsistent from that point on. But with his spot in the Chase a foregone conclusion for several weeks now, Gordon and his team seemed to go into experimental mode. On the bright side, when it got down to crunch time at Richmond, and the final 10 bonus points were on the line, Gordon put in a solid top-five finish. Now we just have to watch if the Gordon of old comes back, or if those poor finishes were due to more than a little bit of in-race testing.
Martin Truex Jr.: As DEI’s lone representative in the Chase, plenty of questions surround Truex heading into the final 10 races of the year. Will the first-time pressure get to him and, more importantly, will the engine gremlins that wrecked havoc on Earnhardt Jr.’s season land at his door? So far, neither has had an impact as the Chase approached. In the six races leading up to the playoffs, Truex has scored three top 10s and five top 15s. Returning to the site of his first career win at Dover next week should bode well for the No. 1 team, but entering the Chase at New Hampshire, the team is performing pretty well to begin with.
Kyle Busch: Busch enters the Chase on a down note after posting his worst career finish at Richmond, a track he normally excels at. But looking at his recent results overall, it’s not a case of all doom and gloom for the No. 5 team. In the last six races, Busch has three top-10 finishes and no finish worse than 20th (Richmond). His one win at Bristol was good enough to give him the ninth seed in the Chase, and with just one DNF this season, his team has run consistently and up front all year. But now that the pressure is on to beat his Hendrick teammates, we will see how well Busch can perform when the big prize is on the line.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer has the unenviable position of being the only driver in the top 12 without a win… but believe me, it’s not for a lack of trying. Several times this year, Bowyer has put himself in position to rack up that first win, only to come up just short. Heading into Loudon, he has just two top 10s in the last six races, a possible cause of concern for the Jack Daniel’s team. And while he doesn’t have a win like the other drivers, he is one of just two men in the Chase field that does not have a DNF to his credit this year. But that doesn’t mean very much considering the lackluster series of performances they are on right now.
Matt Kenseth: While Kenseth isn’t running what you would normally consider poorly, he is certainly running worse than his competitors in the Chase. Since the Pocono race in July, Kenseth has just two top-10 finishes, leading just a solitary lap in one of the last four events. Kenseth’s M.O is quiet, consistent top-10 and top-five finishes, something he has enjoyed over the last six races. The first trip to Loudon kicked off a string of four straight top 10s for the No. 17 team, and there’s no reason that can’t happen again. But this team is going to have to get off to a hot start in the Chase, because they aren’t the type of team that will usually reel off a string of wins to make up lost ground.
Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick: If there are two drivers heading into the Chase on the cold side, it’s RCR teammates Burton and Harvick. In the last six races, each driver has just one top-10 finish to hang their hats on; clearly, that’s not very Chase-like. Luckily, Harvick’s came right when he needed it, shining at Richmond Saturday night in order to claim the final spot in the Chase. Burton’s struggles, meanwhile, were early and often last week at Fontana, which helped him secure his position on the top 12. Both drivers have been running in the top 15 or 20 over the last month, and that’s just not going to get it done as the season comes to a close if they want to bring the hardware back to RCR.
This weekend, the Chase kicks off at New Hampshire International Speedway. Will someone find themselves behind the eight ball early with a poor finish the first race out? Can Johnson make it three wins in a row, capturing momentum he’d been looking for all season long? Or will Hamlin sweep Loudon – and the safety barriers – this year? And perhaps most importantly… can Gordon prove to us that he was just fooling around the last month and kick it back into high gear? We’ll just have to wait and see until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.