The Chase for the Sprint Cup is a strange and unpredictable beast.
Who, for example, had their money on Greg Biffle winning the first two races of the 10-race playoff? Perhaps family members or best friends may have had some action on the Biff, but I can’t believe there were many (er, any) others. And who would have thought that after just two weeks, Kyle Busch would have made such a spectacular hash of things? It’s hard to write off a guy who has run so well and so flawlessly at times this year – but 210 points is the sort of mountain that would make even Jimmie Johnson pause for thought.
Of course, there are a ton of points to be had, but I’d be more than shocked if Busch the Younger can come all the way back from 12th with eight races remaining. By the way, for all those Chase haters, Busch has also lost his lead in the traditional points standings, as Carl Edwards would now have a 33-point lead using the old calculations. Also looking down and out is fellow Joe Gibbs racer Denny Hamlin, who came into the Chase on a surge of momentum. Two bad finishes later and it seems more likely that the Chesterfield, Va. native will repeat his poor Chase showing of 2007 rather than contend all the way to Homestead as he did in his rookie campaign.
Over at the other end of the standings, it looks like three drivers will contest the crown this year – similar to how it all played out in ’07. Reigning back-to-back champ Johnson has picked up where he left off last Chase, while Cousin Carl continues to rampage his way around the circuit in ’08. And as mentioned above, Biffle is still well in the hunt – although it does say something about the format that not even two straight wins is enough to vault you into first place.
But before we start handing out the prizes for this year’s playoff push, there are still eight races left to be run. And while the most important race is always the next, it’s also fair to say that the results we see in the next three weeks might go a long way to putting one driver in the cat bird seat and — at the same time — extinguish the hopes and dreams of others.
It’s an intriguing stretch of three races that follow the unique challenge of the Monster Mile. First up, it’s a trip to Kansas City and the archetypal 1.5-mile circuit of Kansas Speedway. Then, it’s on to Talladega (which really needs no explanation) and finally, to the Saturday night lights in Charlotte at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. While history has shown the leader after five races is not always the leader after 10, it’s a key trio of races that can break Chase hopefuls and set others up perfectly for the stretch run.
So, without further ado, let’s look at the three upcoming tracks and why they’ll make or break this year’s title…
Of the seven races to be run post-Kansas, four are at similarly configured 1.5-mile cookie cutters. So, running well on the Plains is not a definite precursor to future success at the other four venues – but it’s not exactly a bad sign, either. Last year’s trip saw Biffle (yep, him again) pick up a bizarre victory during a rain-delayed, shortened finish. With the race under caution and his car running on the fumes of fumes, the Biff actually crossed the line in third place, having run down onto the apron in an attempt to eek the last vestiges of juice from his Ford Fusion.
Seems like fuel-mileage finishes are becoming a pattern at Kansas; the previous year, Tony Stewart coasted his way around two-thirds of the final lap (his lead was at 22 seconds) with a bone-dry fuel cell. That’s one of three Kansas races won by drivers who haven’t qualified for the playoffs; for whatever reason, this track lends itself the opportunity for others to pull the upset. Indeed, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli later admitted their cavalier approach to going for the win would have been different had they missed the Chase.
The 2005 Kansas race was won by Mark Martin, which was his last Cup victory to date, while in 2004 it was Front Row Joe Nemechek who took the checkers for the fourth time in his career. Like Martin, Nemechek hasn’t won a Cup race since. So, if history repeats itself in the eighth Cup Series race in the home city of primary series sponsor Sprint, we might just see an unpredictable face smiling broadly in victory lane.
But all wins aside, anyone with true pretensions of taking the crown needs to show their stuff in America’s Heartland. No Chase champion has finished the race lower than 14th, with their average finish a sparkling 7.0 in the years they won it all. And even in ’06, when Johnson scored that top 15, he led the most laps and was foiled only by faulty fuel mileage. There may be four more chances to pull off a solid finish at an intermediate track – but only one opportunity for these Chasers to make a good first impression.
In the week leading up to the race at the biggest, baddest track in NASCAR, two words you’ll read very frequently in the previews will be “wild card.” The nature of plate-track racing lends itself to repeated carnage and twisted, smoking sheet metal, but what sort of race might we see this time around? Will the race have the intensity and balls-out racing of this past April’s date, or more of the same follow-the-leader patience from the October 2007 event? Will Johnson and Jeff Gordon repeat their strategy of riding around at the back and only making a charge to the front in the final 50 laps of the race – or will they run up front and take their chances?
Regardless, this is the race that all the Chasers fear, as in the blink of an eye you can go from cruising in first place to wrecked and 40th. Whenever I think of Talladega, the phrase “shock and awe” springs to mind. “Awe” because it’s the kind of track that a demands a driver be utterly unafraid just to start the engine, and “shock” because that’s almost certainly what’s going to happen in Alabama. For the Chasers, Talladega will be all about survival; however, given the vagaries of plate racing, survival can turn into unexpected victory in the blink of an eye. Just remember, it can slip away oh so quickly – ’06 Chase champ Johnson was leading when spun by teammate Brian Vickers on the final lap. He fell from 1st to 24th in the blink of an eye, the worst finish by any titleholder here under the current playoff system.
Lowe’s Motor Speedway
With both the longest race (the Coca-Cola 600) and the All-Star Race already run at Lowe’s this year – not to mention the facility’s proximity to the majority of race shops – Charlotte is considered the home track to many a driver and crewman. One of only two races run under lights in the Chase (the other being the final event at Homestead) the original cookie cutter will be another vital pit stop on the relentless playoff schedule.
But as of late, the trick to mastering Lowe’s is to come out of this race not as the point leader, necessarily – but with enough momentum geared towards the second half. Just look at how last year’s title worked out: after his second straight Chase win at Charlotte last season, Gordon held a 68-point lead over Johnson. It was an advantage that seemed strong, but one that would be eviscerated by a stunning string of five races from the defending champ. The previous year, Jeff Burton left the North Carolina venue with a 45-point lead; but the following week at Martinsville, Burton had early trouble which lead to his engine expiring and a 42nd-place finish. Just like that, his lead was gone, and Matt Kenseth leapt over the driver of the No. 31 Chevy and into first place.
So while it’s true that in ’04 and ’05, the points leader at the halfway mark wound up winning the title, recent trends lean towards things going the other way around in ’08. And be sure to look for a driver that doesn’t necessarily win but run up front to be the one to challenge: the last three Chase champions have led an average of 70 laps in this race, with ’04 winner Kurt Busch finishing a solid fourth.
If the early indicators are to be believed, this year’s Chase looks like it might go all the way to the final laps in Homestead. But before we get back to Florida for the finale, there are seven races to account for; and all told, the three upcoming events may define who’s in it to win it – and who’s getting a head start on next season.