Kasey Kahne (#9 Dodge Dealers car) was California Dreamin' when his team unloaded at Fontana last week. He'd be running in both the Busch and Nextel Cup races at the two-mile California Speedway, and would have to have things work out pretty well for him to have a shot at making The Chase with just one race to go. Kahne trailed 10th place Mark Martin (#6 AAA car) by 90 points heading to the left coast. His best chance would be to lead some laps and finish as far ahead of anyone in positions three through ten in the points as possible.
So what did dream boy Kasey do? He won the Busch race Saturday night, then Sunday led the most laps on the way to turning the weekend sweep (thanks to Reed Sorenson [#41 Target car] running out of gas with two laps left). He heads back east trailing 10th place by only 30 points. For sake of mention, Carl Edwards (#99 Office Depot car) finished fourth (and led a lap) and Greg Biffle (#16 National Guard/Subway Car) finished 24th, but were eliminated from contention for The Chase.
In fact it was a banner night for Ray Evernham's three Dodge Chargers. At one point late in the race Kahne and teammates Elliott Sadler (#19 Dodge Dealers car) and Scott Riggs (#10 Valvoline car) were running one-two-three. Both Sadler and Riggs would fall back, but finished 13th and 17th, respectively. As a sidenote, Evernham developmental driver Erin Crocker was in attendance - rumors are starting to gather steam of something going on between driver and owner, though I don't know of any evidence to support it.
This was one of the better races I've seen at Fontana. There were a number of lead changes among ten different drivers - at times from lap to lap. Kyle Busch (#5 Kellogg's car) showed strength early, and teammate Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont car) led several times for a number of laps until a second pit stop was needed under a late caution to ensure lug nuts were tight. Gordon would re-start 25th with 75 or so laps remaining and drive to finish fifth. Without the setback I think he would have won - the DuPont Chevy was gaining half a second a lap on the leaders before the sun set. Nonetheless Busch and Gordon swapped places in the points standings - fourth and fifth. Both also slightly closed their point gaps to teammate Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe's car) who, finishing 11th, would lose his overall point lead to Matt Kenseth (#17 DeWalt Tools car) who came home seventh.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#8 Budweiser car) finished second after leading some laps, moving up three places to sixth in the points. Junior was rim-riding (driving up near the wall in the turns) most of the race, and made it work for him. I'd like to know how that translated into more miles than those running the bottom line for the duration of the 500-mile event.
Rookies made strong showings, with Clint Bowyer (#07 Jack Daniel's car) finishing third, and Denny Hamlin (#11 Fed Ex car) sixth. Hamlin is a lock for Rookie of the Year and slipped to seventh in points, but is 76 ahead of Kahne and should be safe for The Chase. Bowyer deserves an honorable mention for some strong efforts this year. Richard Childress Racing (RCR) has a real talent for the future with Bowyer, and will have at least one, if not two cars (depending on how Jeff Burton [#31 Cingular car] comes out of Richmond) in The Chase. Burton is on the "bubble" after finishing 16th at California - dropping from seventh to tenth, again only 30 points ahead of Kahne. Third RCR entry Kevin Harvick (#29 GM Goodwrench car) finished 15th, and barring disaster at Richmond, should be good for The Chase.
Mark Martin, the "Crazy Old Man" (watch for the Nextel commercial with the back-flipping Carl Edwards and Martin's stand-in "Fernando" showing Edwards up for the crowd - it's a good one) had a fair run, leading laps and finishing 12th. Good enough to move out of the cellar, but not out of danger. He's only 32 points ahead of Kahne.
So that leaves Tony Stewart, who remained in eighth overall with a ho-hum finish of ninth. Stewart started mid-pack, but was steady and drove his way forward most of the race in daylight, then settled in to a top-10 finish. Consistency is key, but "Smoke" is only 45 points ahead of Kahne, and with the perils of Richmond, could prove to be a problem.
Now, one point needs to be made here regarding The Chase. NASCAR made an announcement this week that the "tiebreaker" junk they had for 10th place had been thrown out. If drivers are tied for 10th place after Richmond both will make The Chase. Well, that's one good idea they've come up with.
So what's going to happen this Saturday night at the 3/4 mile Richmond International Raceway? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. Nine men are racing for eight spots in The Chase, since Johnson and Kenseth are locked in. I'd say Kevin Harvick is in, as are Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, unless disaster befalls them. What's scary for me as a Gordon fan, is Richmond hasn't been kind to him for several years. He does have two wins and 16 top-10 finishes there, with a career average of 15.8. Finishing ahead of that average should ensure a place in The Chase. Gordon is 102 points ahead of Kahne, an "Shrub" 95.
The guys in positions six through ten are the ones who should just look to stay out of trouble and finish ahead of the number nine Dodge. It's really that simple. Finish ahead of Kahne and you're in, don't and it could be curtains for your season.
- Junior is strong at Richmond, with three wins and a career average finish of 9.4 - that's strong, and would keep him in the show.
- Hamlin is a big question - can the rookie repeat his second-place showing from the spring? If so he's golden.
- Tony Stewart has three wins as well, and is consistent enough to race for his third title.
- Mark Martin has 21 career top-10s at RIR. But with only a 32-point cushon, a conservative approach may not be enough.
- Jeff Burton is the one in jeopardy in my mind. I'd just as soon see him make The Chase and Kahne as well. But 30 points leaves virtually no room for error for the veteran.
What it's going to come down to is who can stay out of other people's messes Saturday night.
The keys to the race: Qualify well - ensuring a choice pit location (so as to not get blocked in by another car); Run up front, especially on restarts - thus hopefully being in front of a wreck; Stay out of trouble in traffic, because single-file restarts result in cars going laps down very quickly; Stay ahead of Kasey - then it's simple math: do this and you're in, don't and you could be racing with the "also-rans".
In the spring race Kasey Kahne finished 34th, four laps down to winner Dale, Jr. That bodes well for the guys ahead of him, except one - my man Jeff Gordon, who's motor failed relegating him to 40th. That in an of itself won't get Kahne in or bump Jeff out, but I don't look for either to do so poorly this week. We Gordon fans are probably more nervous than he is right now.
Is it over yet? Go Jeff Gordon, GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!