As the song by Herman’s Hermits says, “second verse, same as the first.” Well, in this case, the third and fourth verse are the same, too. Jimmie Johnson continued to make the Chase a bore by scoring his fourth straight win in Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500K, extending his lead to 86 over Jeff Gordon with just one race remaining on the schedule. But even with this second championship seemingly in hand, Johnson still has to survive at Homestead before he gets his hands on the big check. And while all eyes will firmly be on Johnson and Gordon, there are other drivers in the Chase peaking late in the season who are looking to end the year with a win.
So which drivers are actually looking forward to racing 400 miles on Sunday and which ones simply see it as 267 laps to run before taking off for vacation? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
League of His Own
Johnson: With his fourth straight win and 10th of 2007, Johnson and the No. 48 team are clearly a step above everyone else. Heading into the final race of the year at Homestead, the team merely needs to finish 18th or better to secure their second straight title. That shouldn’t be a tall order for Johnson, who has an average finish of 14.5 at Homestead, including four top 10s in six starts. He doesn’t have any wins to his credit at this track yet… but would you really be surprised if checks that off his list on Sunday?
Gordon: He may be politically correct with the media, but you’ve got to believe that Gordon would love to go off when he’s asked what he thinks about the Chase. For the second time since the playoffs began, Gordon has missed out on winning the title thanks to the new and “improved” points system. Tied for an all-time modern record with 29 top-10 finishes, Gordon would be leading the points by 344 if the Chase was never implemented. But as things stand, he is 86 behind his teammate going into the final race. Gordon may have conceded the title on Sunday, but you can bet the driver with no finish lower than 11th in the Chase will press on until the final lap.
Matt Kenseth: After a crash and resulting 34th-place finish at Charlotte, Kenseth was dead last in the Chase standings; rightfully so, considering he had four finishes of 26th or worse in the first five Chase races. But that wreck must have jarred something in Kenseth and the No. 17 team. In the four races since, Kenseth has scored top-five finishes while vaulting to fifth in the standings. The team may be on a roll too late in the season, but with two straight top 10s at Homestead; the roll should continue giving Kenseth a place on the stage come December.
Kyle Busch: While his teammates are trying to make history of another kind, Busch had his sights set on becoming the first driver to win in NASCAR’s three main series at the same track on the same weekend. But after winning the Truck Series and Busch Series races, he fell short on Sunday; finishing the day in eighth place. There is still a shot that Busch can overtake Clint Bowyer for third in the standings, clinching the top-three spots for Rick Hendrick. But looking at Busch’s career finishes at Homestead (41st and 38th), that becomes a longshot for sure.
Jeff Burton: On Sunday at Phoenix, Burton struggled to get the proper handling on his AT&T Chevy, but still managed to bring home a ninth-place finish. With three straight top 10s and four in the last five races, Burton is another driver ending the season on a high note after battling through rough times midseason. In his third full season at RCR, Burton has an outside shot of ending the year in the top five in the standings for the second straight season. But gaining 81 points on Tony Stewart might be a tall order for a driver who hasn’t had a top 10 at Homestead in the last four years.
Bowyer: For a driver making his first appearance in the Chase, without a win to his credit and someone that nobody really gave a chance, Bowyer has done an admirable job in trying to keep pace with the red-hot Hendrick duo. Solidly in third place, brake problems hampered the No. 07 Chevy on Sunday but he was still able to pull through and finish the race in 11th place. His 19th-place finish at Texas was his worst run in the Chase, but he should finish on a high note at Homestead; where he finished tenth last year.
Stewart: Sunday’s race was full of frustration for Stewart as he tried to close out the season with another victory. Two slow pit stops by the No. 20 team erased the progress Stewart made on the track, but he did an admirable job to make his way back through the field in the tough-to-pass CoT, to finish fourth. The finish was his first top five since the race at Loudon that kicked off the Chase back in September. Still, Stewart has put in enough solid finishes to hold onto the fifth position in the standings with one race remaining.
Kevin Harvick: Just because he’s out of the hunt for the Chase, doesn’t mean Harvick is done fighting for every position he can get. Late in the race he bumped and banged with Gordon and came home in sixth; good enough to move him up one place to seventh in the overall standings. Like many in the Chase, Harvick is getting warm way too late in the game. But his three top 10s in the last four races have been good enough to keep him solidly in the top 10. There is a good chance Harvick can earn book end wins to the season; ending the year with a win at a track he has five top 10s at in six starts.
Martin Truex Jr.: Following Sunday’s race, Truex wasn’t too pleased with crew chief Kevin Manion and his late-race strategy. With 40 laps left in the race, Manion made the call to keep Truex on the track making him a “sitting duck.” After leading 72 laps on the day, Truex slid back in the final laps to finish seventh; his second straight top 10. While the team has improved over the last two races, they are still looking for consistency. He has a chance of making the final top 10, but he will need to improve on his 17th-place average finish at Homestead to pull it off.
Kurt Busch: It was an up and down day for the No. 2 team Sunday at Phoenix, but one they hope to use as a learning experience for next season. After starting ninth, Busch hung in the top 10 for a while until his Dodge’s handling turned “wicked.” At one point Busch was as far back as 18th, but he was able to rally thanks to some major adjustments to finish the race in 12th. The finish still dropped him one spot to 10th in the standings with one race remaining. Busch holds a 47-point lead over Truex for the final spot on the stage at the banquet, but with two finishes of 36th or worse in his last three Homestead starts; no lead is safe.
Denny Hamlin: While Truex felt his crew chief left him hanging, Hamlin’s team can point to their driver as the cause for their subpar finish on Sunday. After getting busted for speeding not once, but twice in Phoenix; Hamlin had to settle for a 16th-place finish. Now dead last in the Chase standings, thanks to no top 10s in the last three races, he’ll need a repeat of his third-place finish at Homestead last year if he wants to try and climb out of the cellar.
Carl Edwards: Edwards claimed his first pole of the season on Friday at Phoenix and opened the race by leading the first 87 laps, setting the stage for a good day for the No. 99 team. But as good it as it started, it turned south just as fast. On lap 105, his engine went sour and sent the team behind the wall. The team tried to make repairs and eventually sent him back out on the track, a move that would ultimately earn him one position on the track, but he was done for good on lap 162. His 42nd-place finish dropped him four spots in the Chase to ninth. But the team has one more chance to redeem themselves at Homestead, a track where he is tied for the best average finish (8.7).
Will Johnson’s dream season continue? Can Gordon steal the trophy away from his younger protege? Will one of the other Chasers win the race and try to steal a little bit of the limelight? We’ll just have to wait until Sunday to find out who ends the 2007 season hot or not.