All the talk of championships and pressure and strategy is put to the side at least for the drivers.They get to work and do what they do best: Race to win.
Finally it was time to race.
With all the anticipation and the buzz surrounding what is a wide open Chase, see which drivers were the winners and which were the losers in Sunday's Sylvania 300 in Loudon, NH.
Leading the points in the first race of the Chase is not always the best position to be in. For Mark Martin though, he was relaxed and wasn’t worrying about points. He was focused on the race.
Martin started 14th after a disappointing qualifying. The No. 5 obviously wasn’t the best car early in the race. Martin dropped back early to as far back as 16th but a stellar first pit stop put them into the top-10. After that stop, they never ran outside the top-10 again.
Martin gave feedback when needed and worked traffic perfectly. He survived the multiple late race cautions and a hard charging Juan Pablo Montoya.
The win secured him the top position in the Chase and only lost him five points from where his lead started on Sunday.
Martin gives credit to everyone around him, but face it, he is one of NASCAR's greats and the favorite for the Championship right now.
That is all that matters.
For Clint Bowyer, not making the Chase was a tough blow to a driver who had made NASCAR's playoff system the two previous seasons. This year he can play spoiler without the pressure the Chase brings. On Sunday Bowyer quietly ran a great race, and grabbed a top-10 finish to show for it.
Bowyer started a little off on their setup. They struggled with a loose race car early but Bowyer was able to give good information on what he needed in his car to make it more comfortable.
On top of the good adjustments, he was also helped by some solid pit stops that gave him great track position.
At one point he was running in the top three, battling for the lead. He fell back in the end to 10th but let it be known, he won’t go down quietly even if he won’t win a championship.
His impressive day should only fuel this team not only for the remainder of this year, but to get them back into the Chase next year.
What a run for Elliott Sadler. We know he can run well on the restrictor plate tracks. But Sadler hasn’t shown strength on intermediate and short tracks. Today he struggled with his race car early but was able to give solid feedback to his crew.
They battled track position all day long but when it counted and mattered most they were able to hold position through the late restarts. An eighth place finish is exactly what this team needed to change momentum.
Sadler has a lot riding on the final 10 races and even though he has a ride secured, he has never been a contender for a championship.
To contend next year preparation starts right now for Sadler.
Let's be honest, the engine failure that knocked the No. 9 car out of the race should make Kahne nervous going forward.
What momentum they had coming into today has all but disappeared.
Early on, Kahne was moving forward but sensed there was an issue on the backstretch when he could hear the engine missing. Seconds later, the engine blew and their day was over.
They dropped all the way to 12th in the standings after finishing 38th.
Kahne was asked who he considers to be the leader at Richard Petty Motorsports and he wasn't even sure. He said he does look to crew chief Kenny Francis for leadership and that he really depends on Francis.
That being said Kahne needs leadership at his newly shaken-up team if he wants to have success in the Chase. It can't be all Kahne, there needs to be a man pulling the strings from behind the curtain.
Otherwise the No. 9 might be an afterthought in the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With all the focus on the Chase drivers, there are a few drivers that are already looking to improve for next year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of those drivers who in recent weeks, has been showing improvement on the track.
Earnhardt started mid pack but quickly was moving forward. In 50 laps he was in the top 10. He was running in the top five before the halfway point of the race.
This team has seen a turnaround after their early to mid-season woes and they are running better. Earnhardt had flawless pit stops and the feedback to the team allowed them to keep up on the car.
Earnhardt and his team are communicating the best he has all year long with Lance McGrew his crew chief.
The results, though, don't show that. On Sunday, Junior's strong finish was ruined by a someone else's mistake.Trouble on a late restart when David Reutimann got into Earnhardt, who went hard into the wall.
What should have been a solid top-10 finish turned into a 27th place finish.
Earnhardt fans should start to feel better progress is being made, albeit too late for 2009.
As we took the green flag on Sunday the top-10 was covered with Chase drivers but a couple drivers had surprising qualifying laps and one of them was David Stremme.
They were using the same setup that Kurt Busch had in his car, and the speed proved that. They were top-five in practice, and were looking forward to racing on Sunday.
He ran up front for the first 100 laps but soon began to fall backwards. The handling on this car was going away and the adjustments on pit road were sending them backward.
Then on lap 193, contact with AJ Allmendinger sent him spinning. He ended up two laps down and finished 28th.
Stremme is out of a ride at the end of this year and is auditioning for his future in this sport.
When the weekend began, Bobby Labonte was fighting to get into the race. After a stellar qualifying lap that put him eighth, Labonte was in.
The question that remained was would he race all 300 laps? With limited sponsorship, they didn’t have enough money for pit crew or tires.
Labonte a former champion went to work and through negotiations he was able to secure enough money to complete the race.
It paid off as he ended up leading the race at one point.
You know it’s a tough economy when a former champion is struggling to run a full race.
For Labonte, if he had a great ride, who knows what the results would be. But at this point in his career, that might be one too many "ifs."
The first race is over and the standings had a major shakeup, but this won’t be the last time this happens.
We saw what was expected as the Chase drivers dominated both the good and the bad stories on Sunday.
The coverage though, was less than impressive. ESPN seemed to be struggling with covering not only the Chasers but everyone else.
Sometimes they were so focused on the Chasers they were missing the good racing back in the pack.
And the post-race coverage by ESPN was pitiful.
I know it is football season but if you want to make the Chase relevant, the TV coverage needs to improve.
NASCAR fans want to hear from their drivers. The least they could do is talk to the Chase drivers if nothing else.
If they didn't want to miss football coverage, then cut the pre-race show down. That way NASCAR fans get everything they want. For fans, it's a bit more important to hear from drivers after the race than it is to hear speculation before it.
Next up is Dover, who will rebound? Who will play spoiler? Who will take the checkered?
See you next Sunday.