Following his fifth win of the season at Loudon this past Sunday, Mark Martin was sure he was dreaming. He had just won a race on one of the five tracks he had yet to score a victory on in the Sprint Cup Series, firing the first round in the 10-race Chase most never thought he’d be a part of again, much less lead the standings heading into Dover this weekend. In three prior playoff appearances, his best finish was a seventh in 2005, so this would surely help get things rolling towards that title that has eluded him in three different decades, right?
“It’s a great way to start, but it’s one of 10, and it ain’t that big of a deal….”
Ah, there he is. The old Martin – seemingly preparing for a letdown, not making a big deal out of winning a big race (his 40th career win) that may set the tone for a title run, but putting into perspective the fickleness that a 10-race playoff format brings to NASCAR instead. He reiterated the point he made moments after qualifying for the Chase at Richmond, celebrating the win during his Victory Lane appearance on SPEED. Martin’s contention remains the same now as it was then: don’t get all excited until there’s about four races left to go, as that’s when the players deciding the championship will begin to stand out.
Is this Martin’s past practical pessimism coming back to rear its ugly head again? Hardly. It is based on years of experience, heartache… and cold hard facts.
The first few Chase races are certainly important, but they hardly guarantee success under a 10-race format. They do, however, aid greatly in building momentum and moving into the races that typically dictate who emerges as the champion – the Final Four.
(Final Four? NASCAR ought to thank me for that one. They love a stick-and-ball sports analogy for the casual fan.)
Anyways, getting off to a good start in the Chase does not dictate that you will be a championship contender, although it does dramatically improve your odds. In 2004, the first year the new points format was thrust upon what was then called the Nextel Cup Series, Kurt Busch won the very first Chase race at Loudon – his only victory in that year’s playoffs – to ultimately become the Nextel Cup champion.
But since Busch’s inaugural Chase triumph, no one has been able to turn a win this early into another season-ending trophy at Homestead. Instead, there’s been instance after instance of close, but no cigar, as the momentum generated by an early-playoff performance just hasn’t been enough to sustain itself over the entire grueling stretch.
Think back to a year ago at this time. Entering the Chase, Greg Biffle was ninth in points on the strength of eight top-five finishes – albeit with zero wins to his credit. However, once the points were reset after Richmond, it was like flipping a switch on the ignition panel. Out of nowhere, the No. 16 team fired to life, posting back-to-back wins at New Hampshire and Dover. It was a sobering reality to those who paid little mind to the drivers who had not yet won earlier in the year, or had predicted Kyle Busch to run away with the title. Busch started off with a 34th at Loudon and then placed dead last at Dover, effectively ending his Chase before it even started.
Meanwhile, Biffle went on to record a third-place finish at Kansas after the Dover victory, which positioned him just 30 points out of the lead behind Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Such a strong start should have ensured that he would contend until the final race at Homestead, that he would be a favorite heading into the slew of 1.5-mile tracks that comprise half the Chase.
And then, it happened – “it” being Talladega. The track that Martin has deemed “the Lotto” had Biffle’s car looking like a crumpled up Mega Millions ticket with no winners on it by race’s end, as Biffle was the victim of an ill-advised bump-draft from teammate Edwards between turns 3 and 4 at the wildest of wild card tracks in the Chase.
Biffle escaped the Talladega junkyard with only a 77-point deficit to Johnson; however, the race broke the momentum that the Roush Fenway team had built with their unprecedented start. One week later, Biffle found himself leading in the fifth race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway as the race wound down; but in the final stint, he would fade to seventh, while Jeff Burton went on to record his only win in the Chase. Biffle’s team would soldier on in continuing to qualify well throughout the second half of the championship fight, but never seemed to muster the gumption to challenge for the win as they did early on – before the big wreck at Talladega.
A year earlier in 2007, Clint Bowyer was in a similar position. Coming off his rookie season, Bowyer and the No. 07 Richard Childress Racing bunch shocked everyone to dominate the first race of the Chase at Loudon, leading 222 of 300 laps. A mediocre 12th the next race at Dover was followed up by a second-place run a week later at his home track in Kansas – a race many contend that he should have won after Biffle was running out of fuel as the race was called early. With four races to go, he remained within striking distance, 115 points behind leader Jeff Gordon. However, the “Final Four” spelled doom for Bowyer, as he ran headfirst into the Hendrick buzzsaw piloted by Johnson with finishes of sixth, 19th, 11th and 39th to close out the year a whopping 346 points behind the series champ.
Ryan Newman may have started this phenomenon of starting strong, then flailing about like a shark attack victim with four races remaining during the second year of the Chase in 2005. Newman won the New Hampshire race to kick off his title quest, and followed it up with a pair of top-five finishes that propelled him to within only four points of his buddy and current teammate/car owner, Tony Stewart. A sour showing at Kansas (23rd) was the first sign of trouble, yet with four races remaining, Newman was still just 63 points off the top spot, close enough to race down the margin and win Penske Racing its first NASCAR championship. But after putting his No. 12 Dodge on the pole for the next two events in Atlanta and Texas, the results were a dismal pair of 23rd- and 25th-place finishes that all but sunk his chances of contending for the crown.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t stumble at the start and rally to win the title on a rebound – quite the contrary. Many may forget the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s first of three consecutive record-tying title fights.
In 2006, Johnson got off to a miserable start, looking average at best with his first three finishes being a 39th at New Hampshire, 13th at Dover, and 14th at Kansas. Hardly cause for optimism, these runs followed what some critics called a choke job a year earlier in ’05 that shook the foundations of a team that once brimmed with confidence. The fourth race at Talladega was to be the start of something special, however, as Johnson swung out to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap. But as the challenger made his move down the backstretch, both he and Earnhardt were collected by Brian Vickers, perhaps costing the No. 48 team’s chance at a title. They’d need a miracle to dig themselves out of this hole.
But then, they got it. A second at Charlotte (that featured a rash of tire failures and crashes among his Chase competition) was followed by a win at Martinsville. That left the Final Four, with Johnson and the Lowe’s team in position to make a charge after the deficit separating he and leader Matt Kenseth had closed to just 41. A trio of runner-up finishes and a ninth-place effort at Homestead solidified Johnson’s first championship, and has served as the template for how to win one under this format ever since.
Johnson’s recent championship performances have forever changed the way people pursue the Chase. No more will steady seventh-place finishes automatically bring you a title – wins, bonus points and top-three efforts is what is required to put yourself in a position to win. By going for the throat every week, you take the mulligan out of the equation for the other guy, and if he chooses to run conservatively, you can force his hand into making a mistake.
So while Martin remains guarded towards his Chase chances and what his New Hampshire win could mean, it is for good reason. Think of the Chase as a race in and of itself, where this past weekend was the drop of the green flag and the equivalent of a run to the first pit stop. There is a lot of racing left to do, and it won’t be until about four races to go that we will have a clear picture of who’s a contender and who’s a pretender. Considering seven of the top-10 finishers in Sunday’s race were Chase drivers, it likely will come down to the Final Four to determine the outcome.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, that first of that Final Four is Talladega.