The Hendrick stronghold on the Chase for the Championship tightened Sunday at Martinsville, as Jimmie Johnson scored his series-high seventh win of the season. Not to be totally outdone, teammate Jeff Gordon finished third, maintaining a 53-point lead over Johnson in what has quickly become a two-man race for the championship. If not for some bad luck and poor finishes in earlier events by the other 10 drivers who make up the Chase, Sunday could have actually had an interesting impact on the standings; Chasers claimed 10 of the top 13 positions. But as things stand right now, it’s the Gordon/Johnson show down the stretch, with Clint Bowyer barely holding on in a possible spoiler role for yet another week.
But even though the big trophy is out of reach for most, there is still plenty of cash to fight for amongst the other 10 competitors. So, which of the Chasers left Sunday’s yellow-filled race at Martinsville throwing caution to the wind, and which ones left feeling like they had gone 12 rounds with a heavyweight champ? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Gordon: After scoring two straight wins in the Nextel Cup Series, a third-place finish at Martinsville has to seem like a bit of a letdown to Gordon. But the good news is that he still carries the point lead into Atlanta and ran well on Sunday, leading a race high 168 laps and overcoming loose lugnuts on pit road to battle back to the front. In the end, Gordon was shuffled from first to third late in the race… but the fact the car stayed in contention was amazing in itself. And isn’t it ironic that the only driver who now has a serious chance at keeping Gordon away from title number five is his employee, teammate, and shop roommate? Heading into Atlanta, there doesn’t seem much for Gordon to be troubled about quite yet, either; he has three top 10s there in the last four races, making him a solid bet to at least contend for another win.
Johnson: Johnson bested his teacher Sunday at Martinsville, scoring his fourth win at the Virginia short track. He also managed to make a small dent in Gordon’s lead as well; he now sits 53 points behind as the series heads to Atlanta. Looking at the numbers, this dynamic duo has been pretty well even with each other, both on the track and on paper throughout these playoffs. Another great example of that is at Atlanta; Gordon has three wins to Johnson’s two. However, Johnson holds a slight edge in average finish with a 10.1 mark including his win there earlier this year.
Bowyer: If Gordon and Johnson weren’t in their own zip code, Bowyer would be in the thick of the title hunt in his first appearance in the Chase. During the last four races, Bowyer hasn’t finished lower than 11th, scoring two runner-up finishes in the process; those are usually stats good enough to even give him the point lead in any other season. But this year, those numbers are only good enough for third place, 115 points behind the leader. The high-speed track at Atlanta could provide a glimmer of hope for a chink to appear in the Hendrick armor, however; remember, Bowyer was sixth at the track earlier this year, which could put him in a position to capitalize if the unthinkable does happen.
Kyle Busch: If not for poor finishes at Kansas and Talladega, it could very well be a three-way Hendrick battle for the championship, with the soon-to-be with Gibbs driver taking center stage. Take out those two bad wrecks and Busch has been in the top five in the other four Chase races, including Sunday’s event at Martinsville – when he led 106 laps on his way to a fourth-place finish. Still, those two poor results leave Busch is on the outside looking in – ironic, considering his Hendrick Motorsports career is busy wrapping itself up in its own right. Meanwhile, Atlanta might get busy bringing Busch right back down to earth; his average finish of 23rd is one of the lowest amongst the Chasers.
Tony Stewart: Smoke put up a good fight on Sunday, making his way through the Martinsville carnage from the 34th position to finish 13th. It was a weekend chock full of ups and downs, one in which Stewart was as busy avoiding and/or causing trouble as much, if not more so, as attempting to push to the front. But as is the case with so many other drivers this year in the Chase, the late push is proving too little, too late, at least in the race for the title. At least Stewart still has the potential to make a move on Bowyer in third place, especially if he can continue his four-race top 10 streak at Atlanta this weekend. Anything beyond that is likely too much to ask; but you never know, as there isn’t any quit in Stewart.
Carl Edwards: It was certainly an eventful day for Edwards at Martinsville, who made a nice save to keep his car out of the wall late in the race after having to switch batteries earlier in the day. Once that was finished, at least he reaped the rewards before fading to 11th by the time the checkered flag flew. In the last three races, Edwards has no finish lower than 14th and a top five last week at Charlotte; and in most any other circumstance, that would be something to get excited about. For now though, his motivation is keeping Kyle Busch at bay in the standings. But heading to Atlanta – where he has the best average finish (9.8) of any of the Chasers – should make him feel good about those chances.
Jeff Burton: Burton has put engine woes and accidents behind him, continuing to press on through the remaining races in the Chase. Keep in mind, this team scored a fourth-place finish at Lowe’s and backed it up with a 12th-place run at Martinsville; which, in all honesty, should have been a top 10 considering the way Burton ran had it not been for a pit road violation. With Atlanta on the horizon – a track he finished fourth at earlier this year – look for Burton’s run of good fortune to continue.
Kevin Harvick: Things could be turning around for Harvick in the Chase; I guess it’s better late than never, right? While other drivers suffered tire problems at Martinsville, Harvick wasn’t one of them this Sunday. A week after suffering three flat tires at Lowe’s, the No. 29 rebounded to a solid 10th-place finish, their second such run in the last four races. Clearly, it appears Harvick the Gentle Giant has finally woke up from what was a continuous bad dream.
Looking ahead to Atlanta, you’d think this would be a great track for Harvick: he won his first race here in 2001. In fact, it has been just the opposite, though. He had two top fives there back in ’01, but has finished in the top 20 just once after that. Um, better put the tire changers on alert this weekend…
Denny Hamlin: Currently sitting eighth in the standings, Hamlin has a realistic shot of making the top five by the time the year is all said and done. At Martinsville, he put himself in a hole with a 30th-place qualifying effort, but quickly erased the deficit and kept his nose clean to finish sixth… his second top 10 in the last three races. Now, just 86 points separate Hamlin from fifth-place Carl Edwards in the standings as the series hits Atlanta. Hamlin was eighth there last year in the Chase; if he can put together a similar run, he should give himself a good shot at the top five.
Matt Kenseth: It took nine races, but Kenseth finally found his way back into the top five at Martinsville. His fifth-place finish – thanks to a call for two tires late in the race – played out to be his first top 10 of the 2007 Chase, as well. Obviously, it’s too little, too late for the 2003 champion to even contemplate a run for the top spot, but it should give a boost to a team that hasn’t performed in the Chase the way anyone expected… including themselves. However, with three top fives in the last four Atlanta races, he could be starting a new (more favorable) trend.
Kurt Busch: Martinsville proved to be another exercise in frustration for the No. 2 team. Busch had a decent starting position and ran in the top 10 early before a myriad of problems fell upon them. The biggest of those proved to be a blown tire and resulting contact with the wall on lap 166, a hard hit that proved to be this team’s undoing. From then on, the No. 2 bunch merely scraped to put together a decent finish… only to have the transmission get stuck in second gear as the laps wound down. The resulting 31st-place result was Busch’s second straight run outside the top 25, as well as his fourth such finish of the Chase. Now, the team will dredge on to Atlanta this weekend where Busch has one win to his credit, but also an average finish of 22.3. With the way Busch’s luck has gone of late, who knows which side of the fence his performance will land him this week?
Martin Truex Jr.: With the way his race unfolded, you would have thought Truex had secured the Target sponsorship for the weekend. After running in the top 10 early, the No. 1 car was caught up in three separate accidents on Sunday, including back-to-back cautions on laps 466 and 477 that all but destroyed chances of a solid finish. Honestly, that’s a snapshot of how Truex’s Chase has gone – he started off well at Loudon, but has been kicked around the last four races since, knocking him down the standings to a slumping 11th place. It doesn’t look like things will improve next week, either – Truex carries the worst average finish (28.2) of any of the Chasers at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
So, what lies in store for us in the Gordon/Johnson show this weekend? Will Jimmie be nice and let Jeff get the next win, or will he go for two in a row to equal Gordon’s mark? Can anyone else steal the limelight and get the victory? (Newman sure has been doing his damndest lately). Or will the dynamic duo be swept up in some bad luck, giving at least a glimmer of hope to the “other” drivers in the Chase? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out who stayed hot down south… and who cooled off.