Clearing Up the Conundrum Called the '09 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 7, 2009

HAMPTON, GA - SEPTEMBER 06:  Brian Vickers, driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 6, 2009 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

For fans of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin, the only concerns they will have is if their driver will win this Saturday night's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at the Richmond International Raceway.

After all, these drivers are locked into the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

Their teams can experiment with chassis set-ups, testing out different racing grooves on the track, as well as pushing the limits of their equipment to find out how much they can get out of their machines.

This may explain for some of the gambles that have been seen since Michigan, such as the No. 48 team running short on fuel for a victory at that two-mile facility or Stewart going for two tires in Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta.

They were in position where they could lose some points and opt for victory, no matter the sacrifice when the box scores were released following the race.

On the contrary, drivers from fifth through 14th place are having a war of their own, fighting to make it into this year's Chase.

Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, and Kyle Busch are all waged in a tremendous battle for a position amongst the top 12.

Although Edwards, Montoya, and Biffle have yet to score a win this season, these "Bubble Boys" are proven commodities in the sport.

Martin is the sentimental favorite of all the contenders, having been the bridesmaid on four different occasions in the final tally for the championship (1990, '94, '98, and 2002).

Each of these men have a unique story that brought them into contention for a Chase berth. Regardless of the results of the 400-lapper at "The Action Track," these teams should be proud of their efforts in distinguishing themselves from the rest of the field.

That said, missing the 12-driver field would be a huge blow and confidence crusher for any of these men.

After all, who goes into a season thinking, "Let's settle for 13th place in points?'

NASCAR, its drivers, and its teams could not have scripted a better script for one of the most dramatic races to unfold at the three-quarter mile Virginia quad-oval.

It would be the equivalent of seeing perennial contenders like the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots, and the Denver Broncos all vying for a wild-card seed in a hotly contested AFC race in the NFL.

There's nothing like that last-minute rush to punch a ticket into the playoffs, or in NASCAR's case, a spot in the Chase for The Sprint Cup. Money, bragging rights, and a spot in history are all on the line, and adding a title would be the beautiful addition to a driver's resume.

Perhaps we might see one of these contenders "luck out" by the race's conclusion, pulling a "Jeremy Mayfield moment" from 2004, when the now-dogged NASCAR figure urged his way into the Chase by winning at Richmond.

Talk about last-minute preparation, Mayfield defeated stars like Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Kasey Kahne, and Jamie McMurray for the final position for the playoffs.

Jeff Gordon knows best about the highs and lows of the Chase, flirting for a title in 2004 and '07 with consistent, yet imperfect efforts to win the championship.

Gordon came just 12 points short for the title, finishing in third behind titlist Kurt Busch and runner-up and teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Three years later, Gordon found himself with a somewhat realistic but difficult chance at the title. Instead, he was bested by Johnson, but this time, for that coveted first position.

While the No. 24 team was the most consistent in 2007, it was how they performed in the Chase as opposed to the No. 48's efforts that ultimately cost "The Rainbow Warriors" their fifth (or in his fan's eyes, a sixth title) championship in a remarkable career.

Gordon and his crew have experienced playoff disappointment as well, having missed the cut in 2005 in a season that was problematic and chaotic in an otherwise mysterious year.

Despite being that year's Daytona 500 champion and a three-time winner at that point of the '05 season, his performances were only good enough for an 11th-place finish in the final rundown of the standings.

Ultimately, most observers will have their eyes on the "Bubble Boys," who have a lot more to lose than gain than the top-four drivers, who have locked the place into postseason play.

Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Juan Pablo Montoya are probably the only drivers who, if ever, are in a position where they can have a minute mistake, but must finish the race to make it into the top-12.

These four have compiled a consistent, strong season, staying out of trouble for the most part to be within striking distance of clinching a Chase spot long before Richmond.

With that in mind, should these drivers, or for that matter, any of these contenders run into a problem like crash damage on the track, a pit road miscue, or equipment issues, it will be a bittersweet campaign for the remainder of 2009.

Edwards, Kahne, Martin, and Montoya can breathe a bit easier than the likes of Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, and Kurt Busch.

Despite injuring himself last week in a game of Frisbee, look for Edwards to silence his critics with a victory in the final 10 races.

Kahne will continue to impress with a better late than never performance, while JPM may be the most aggressive of the trio, doing away with his "racing for points" tactic and shooting for checkered flags.

It may not be such an easy road to Homestead for Newman, Biffle, and Busch, who have to basically have the races of their lives to fend off the final two contenders and wild-card players.

While I leapfrogged Martin ahead of Busch, the No. 5 team has, for the most part, been a better team down the summer stretch than the Miller Lite group in terms of victories (four to one).

In a year where fans have seen experience pay off over youth and exuberance, Martin and the Kellogg's crew will probably opt for a safe finish into a top 10 position in the race.

Having seen his share of disappointments along with some fortune, the conservative route might be the best one for "Mr. Consistency."

Newman has returned into his title-contending ways, but the only variable that plagues this team is inconsistency.

"Rocket Ryan" has either been fast off the box or a totally lost driver at sea when the No. 39 car is off the truck, which basically dictates their performances on race day.

Team 39 will definitely make the Chase but they will certainly need to work on their race set-ups to legitimately contend with the likes of Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, Martin, Kahne, and Montoya.

While Kyle Busch has been the more visible brother of the Vegas duo, older sibling Kurt has experienced something of a resurgence in 2009, winning the spring race at Atlanta while staying in the top-10 in points all year long.

Maturity and a toned-down aggression have translated into a more polished Kurt Busch. Of the two "antagonists of the track," the elder brother will make the cut.

Realistically a long-shot but a formidable player for the Chase, Kurt will give the "Blue Deuce" fans something to talk about down the stretch.

No, I am not biased, although it may seem that way. Offering no apologies, Brian Vickers will be the final driver to make the Chase, beating out four-time race winner Kyle Busch and '09 Daytona 500 champ/'03 Cup titlist Matt Kenseth.

Call me crazy, because I will probably cause a ruckus in Cambridge, Wisc. and Las Vegas, but simply put, nobody has been more consistent and resilient in these summer months than Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota team.

Led by crew chief Ryan Pemberton, whose older brother Robin knows a thing or two about contending for a title with Kyle Petty and Rusty Wallace, TRB has to be licking their chops for their hard-luck driver to finally make the Chase field.

Experience, hunger, and determination are some of the words to describe the No. 83 team's performances in the summer, with seemingly nothing stopping this third-year group from a strong finish and ultimately, a playoff spot.

Sure, Kenseth is the only other driver besides Johnson to make all the previous versions of the Chase, but Roush-Fenway Racing has not been as stout and strong like in 2008.

Perhaps it is the departure of Robbie Reiser from the crew chief spot to an organizational position following the '07 campaign, or simply hard luck costing the No. 17 team, but Kenseth might experience some Chase disappointment with his first non-appearance ever.

It's been chronicled by many writers and observers on various sites, but while Kyle Busch is a talented and remarkable young driver, his immaturity, along with the No. 18's mediocre finishes, have ultimately placed this 24-year-old leadfooter on the outside picture.

For the first time since his rookie year of 2005, Kyle might be racing merely for pride and wins rather than the Sprint Cup, perhaps toning down his flamboyant act to a degree in the process...as if that will happen.

Nevertheless, I look for Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to miss the Chase. They are definitely tremendous and elite drivers, but their '09 seasons have just not been good enough to make the playoffs and for a chance at that trophy.

As Billy Joel once sang, "You may be wrong, but you may be right," it will be interesting to see how the final chapters of the Chase field play out in the four-hour drama called the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond.