NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: All Around the Chosen Ones

Like it or not (and I think I’ve made it pretty clear which side of the fence I stand on over the last five years) NASCAR’s all-singing, all-dancing, usually disappointing Chase for the Championship is now underway. 12 finalists have been anointed possible titlists and, barring the sudden addition of a swimsuit and talent competition, this year’s title will be decided on the track over the coming 10 weeks.

To give the Devil his due (and I’d rather split a six-pack with Satan than Brian France) this year’s title contenders are indeed an interesting mix. Most notable in their absence are Kyle Busch, a virtual lightning rod of public opinion and a four-race winner, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the sport’s Most Popular Driver. Junior missing the Chase (again!) has probably got ABC/ESPN programmers developing peptic ulcers, but as sorry a season that the No. 88 team has had, there was no way to slip him into the mix absent a fan vote. (And I don’t doubt that’s coming.)

So who are our 12 finalists? A mixture of first-timers and battled hardened veterans. What are each one’s chances of being King of the Hill? Let’s took a look at what the 12 have going for them and against them.

Mark Martin

Pros They say to win a title, you have to lose one first. Martin hasn’t lost one title… he’s lost myriads of titles. In fact, Martin has finished second in the points four times. But he’s undoubtedly on top of his game, as four Cup victories to date this season are the most he’s enjoyed since 1998, over a decade ago. Yes, he is 50-plus years in age, but most of us weren’t in as good physical shape as Martin when we were in our 20s. Perhaps most importantly, Martin’s mental outlook this season is as good as I can recall it. He seems to be having the time of his life, and that’s difficult for some of us to accept given Martin’s decade of Eeyore-like negativity. When it comes to physical and mental conditioning to endure the five ring circus that is the Chase, Martin leads the list.

Cons Perhaps if you lose as many titles as Martin has, you come to accept it. What concerns me most is if Martin is hungry enough to win it all. This ain’t lawn croquet; if another driver roughs you up, you have to be ready to pay him back in kind to show you’re not going to be pushed around. Martin is so concerned with his reputation as an extremely clean racecar driver these days that he might not be willing to wade into the swamp, choosing to move somebody out of the way to advance his position if the driver of a slower car refuses to yield. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never hesitated to move another driver out of the way. He won seven titles. Martin has won zero. Draw your own conclusions.

Jimmie Johnson

Pros If any driver and team have this Chase format figured out, it’s Johnson and the No. 48 bunch. Obviously, they’ve won three straight titles, and they’re certainly a favorite to score a fourth this season. The key for Johnson and Chad Knaus is how they’ve perfected the technique of aggression and cruising to maximize their points gains against their competitors. If it takes race wins, they win races. If they it takes top 10s, that’s where they finish. What you rarely see is Johnson make a mental error that leaves him with a poor finish. I still prefer to think winning stock car championships should be more a matter of balls than brains, but Johnson’s camp certainly is giving “brains” a solid leg up.

Cons Rick Hendrick has three drivers in the title chase. (Five if you include Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.) While other teams can marshal their resources and best talent towards one or two contenders, Hendrick has to support many. Perhaps more worrisome, Johnson has just one top-10 finish and no top-five results in the last six races at a point in the season when the No. 48 team is normally hitting their stride. History is certainly against them, too, as no driver – not even the King or Cale Yarborough – ever managed to win four straight titles.

Tony Stewart

Pros Almost nobody gave Stewart even an outside shot at this year’s title given he’d left the nurturing environment of Joe Gibbs Racing to strike out on his own and throw his lot in with Gene Haas and his perpetually underperforming outfit. Jezum Crow, has Stewart proven us all fools. He’s won three points-paying races and posted top-five finishes in half of this year’s 26 events. Stewart has also played this game with the tensions and media scrutiny of a title chase before, winning twice in 2002 and ’05. The first time, he didn’t handle the pressure too well, but by the second time he was notably more relaxed and used to dealing with the circus. He didn’t even punch anybody out.

Cons While Stewart and other key members of his team have dealt with the fire of title contention before, the No. 14 team as an organization has not. As a partial team owner, Stewart is going to be facing new pressures this time around he hasn’t experienced previously as the hired gun. And like Johnson, Stewart is involved in his own mini-slump right now, with no top-10 finishes in the last four races. That’s the first time he’s had to face that sort of mediocrity this season.

Denny Hamlin

Pros What better way to enter the Chase then with a soul-soaring hometown victory at Richmond? Six straight top-10 finishes going into the Chase is nothing to sneeze at, either. Teammate Kyle Busch might have been hogging the headlines all year, but Hamlin has clearly been the team’s top performer overall.

Cons Hamlin’s first season in the Cup series was a dream ride. He won twice as a virtual unknown and finished third in the points. But the last two seasons haven’t gone as well, with Hamlin often openly debating whether he was ready for the big leagues or alternately throwing his team under the bus. The pressures of the Chase could cause Hamlin to crack again.

Kasey Kahne

Pros Kahne returns to the Chase after a two-year absence, having won two races this season. He also hasn’t suffered a DNF to date.

Cons With Richard Petty Motorsports having announced they are leaving Dodge to join with Ford in 2010, you have to wonder how much Dodge will be supporting this team for the rest of the year. A lot of folks at RPM know they will be out of a job next year as well, and they may not be ready to give it their all for the rest of the season. And if Martin is the toughest driver mentally heading into the Chase, Kahne is the mental cream puff.

Brian Vickers

Pros Vickers rides into the Chase with momentum heavily on his side. He hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last seven Cup races and has scored more points than any other driver. His spirited run as an underdog to make the Chase just two years after struggling just to make races has got this team pumped up like the Goodyear blimp.

Cons Neither Vickers or this team has any experience dealing with the searing pressure of a title chase. Vickers has already endured three DNFs this year, all due to crashes, and even one such result in the Chase could doom a driver’s chances at a title. I think this year’s championship is the one Vickers has to lose before he can win one.

Kurt Busch

Pros Busch won the title in 2004, so he’s been through this drill before. Of course, the pressure of trying to defend that title in 2005 led to a severe meltdown and the loss of his ride at Roush Racing after a little run-in with the Sheriff’s department at Phoenix. Since that unfortunate encounter, though, Busch has matured remarkably. His philosophical attitude towards life and racing is marred only by his continuing habit of using multi-syllabic words incorrectly. It’s hard to imagine Kurt Busch as a Zen-master, but swallowing a few spoonfuls of bitter reality might just have prepared him mentally for the fight that lays ahead. There might be a certain “indubitle-ness-ly” to it.

Cons Busch has crashed out of two of the last four Cup races, and that’s not the sort of habit you want to develop heading into the Chase. It’s been a long time since Busch won at Atlanta in the fourth race of this season, too; it might take another race win or two in the Chase to grab the top honors.

Jeff Gordon

Pros Gordon leads all active drivers with four title victories. He’s walked through this fire before countless times, is a threat to win at almost any track the circuit visits, and he’s shown his mastery at Talladega, which is the Chase’s wild-card race. Gordon has long since proven at any given moment he can go on a tear and win back-to-back-to-back races at the drop of a hat. Bottom line: you count out Gordon at your own peril, and at the risk of appearing a perfect fool. 10 top-10 finishes in the last 13 Cup races prove he isn’t quite over the hill yet.

Cons None of Gordon’s four titles were scored under the new Chase format. There are lingering questions towards his chronic back pain, too, and how it effects him in the racecar. Some would argue Gordon has nothing left to prove at the wheel of a racecar, and he’s set out to not prove it.

Carl Edwards

Pros With Matt Kenseth’s dreary season, Edwards has arguably become Jack Roush’s star player and the best hope for the Blue Oval Faithful this season. Last year, Edwards won nine races, and he has a proven ability to rip off a series of wins at any time. (Last year, he won three of the final four races and scored top five finishes in the final five events.) If mental attitude is a bonus going into the Chase, Edwards is perhaps the most relentlessly upbeat driver on the circuit. Ford teams will also shortly have the choice to use the next generation Ford Racing powerplant, a risk since the mill is untried but a possible trump card.

Cons Well, there’s the minor matter of the fact he has yet to even win a race this season… and then, there’s the broken foot. A Ford has not won a Cup race since the second event of the season, and the entire Roush team is in a slump that makes them look like they’re starting races dragging anchors. I think I’d gamble on that new engine….

Ryan Newman

Pros Newman returns to the Chase after a three-year absence. After a rough start to 2009, his first-year venture with the new Stewart-Haas team has gone swimmingly well. He’s completed all but 13 possible laps this season and has yet to score a single DNF.

Cons Newman hasn’t scored a top-five finish since Pocono in June. He’d probably need a bunch of them to actually compete for this year’s title with any legitimacy. And remember way back when when every Friday Newman was a favorite to take the pole? He’s scored just two poles in the last two seasons. Those front row starting spots and the first choice of a pit stall greatly aided and abetted his efforts, and Newman needs to find a way to get that old Friday magic back.

Juan Pablo Montoya

Pros Yes, this Montoya’s first stab at a stock car title. But he’s been involved in championship chases in open wheel racing, and he once drove (and won) in the Formula 1 series across the pond. You might think that NASCAR racing is the most popular form of motorsports – and in this country, clearly it is – but in Europe and around the globe, F1 rules supreme and F1 drivers are treated like demigods. Montoya has been in the media blitz and the public spotlight before, and it seldom seems to faze him. With that has come a sense of entitlement that borders on arrogance, a sense he’s cut out and able to do this better than almost all his peers. That mental state might actually be a benefit as he enters the uncharted waters of the Chase – just ask Martin how the “humble guy” routine has worked out gathering title trophies. Since the first Pocono race, Montoya has also been on a roll with only two finishes worse than 12th, even though, by his own admission, he’s been points racing – not gunning for wins.

Cons OK, now it’s time to start gunning for wins, and there are no road courses in the Chase. Montoya has just two top-five finishes this season, and neither of them occurred at tracks that will be in the Chase. Montoya winning the title is against all odds; but hey, the guy beat Michael Schumacher at Monaco in a vastly inferior car. Nunca diga nunca.

Greg Biffle

Pros Even Biffle must be baffled as to how he made his way into this year’s Chase with an average finish of 15th and no race victories. I think he owes Richard Childress a beer: RCR cars have been running so badly this year that perennial title contenders Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were just left in the dust by the thundering herd. On a more positive note, four of Biffle’s eight top-five finishes were scored on tracks that will be part of this year’s Chase and if it comes right down to it, he’s won three times at Homestead where the season finale is staged. Five top fives, one win and four more top-10 finishes just might get the job done. After all, Biffle has finished second and third in the Chase in previous seasons, so this ain’t his first rodeo, cowgirl.

Cons This has been a thoroughly lackluster season by Biffle’s standards. Even in the unlikely event he was to finish in the top 10 in every remaining race, he would barely eclipse his own mark of 21 top 10s scored back in 2005 when Biffle finished second in the Chase. Given his underdog status, Biffle might be the perfect candidate to run the new Ford engine and crow if it goes – or shrug if it blows.

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