NASCAR's "Chase" Is On

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After a nerve-wracking week and a nail-biting Chevy Rock 'n Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the "Chase For the Nextel Cup" championship field is set.

 

Kevin Harvick (#29 GM Goodwrench car) turned in the Richmond weekend sweep with a pass of dominant Kyle Busch (#5 Kellogg's car) on lap 398 of the 400-lap race.  It appeared that Busch would coast to victory after leading for most of the race, but Harvick showed the strength of his Richard Childress Racing (RCR) Chevy for the win.  Harvick had won the Busch Series event on Friday night at Richmond, and leads the championship by a seemingly insurmountable 619 points over second-place Carl Edwards in NASCAR's junior league.  Harvick started Saturday night's Nextel race third overall in Cup points, and needed only to finish 40th or better in the 43-car field.  Early exits by a couple of drivers, and five bonus points for leading a lap, ensured that the 29 car would be in The Chase.  Kyle Busch moved up to fourth overall in the points standings with the second-place finish.

 

Points leader Matt Kenseth (#17 DeWalt Tools car) ensured his lead at the start of The Chase by finishing eighth, and Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe's car) struggled to a 23rd-place finish with several incidents on track.  Johnson bumped and spun Jeff Green (#66 Best Buy car) early, then was tied up in a spin himself with Carl Edwards (#99 Office Depot car) and was turned around later by Reed Sorenson (#41 Nicorette/Target car).  Green got some revenge by spinning the 48 under caution and was pulled off the track by NASCAR officials for reckless driving, relegating him to a 41st-place finish.

 

With the top-three locked in, and Busch running out front, the remaining six positions were up for grabs.  Kasey Kahne (#9 Dodge Dealers car) started the race on the outside of The Chase looking in, trailing 10th-place Jeff Burton (#31 Cingular car) by 30 points after Kahne's sweep at California Speedway last weekend.  The numbers going into Richmond were simple for everyone.  Finish in "X" position or better, and regardless of what Kahne did, you were in.  Kahne had simply to get up front and as far ahead of everyone else as he could—and this he did.  After starting 20th on the grid, Kahne drove through the field, led a lap, and finished a strong third.  It was up to everyone else at that point, as Kasey had done everything he could.

 

Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont car) qualified a surprising third, ensuring a good pit stall selection, yet fell back almost from the drop of the green flag.  Gordon's magic number was 25, but an ill-handling Chevy and failing brakes resulted in him nursing the car home a disappointing 31st.  The "Rainbow Warrior" has finished 30th or worse five straight times at Richmond, and dropped five spots in the standings to ninth—just good enough to make The Chase, after missing it last year.

 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#8 Budweiser car) also fought issues for the last 100 laps, as a seal failed in the rear brakes, allowing fluid to drain from the system.  Junior's pit crew tried to fix the problem, and gave him enough to finish an exhausting 17th, one lap in arrears to Harvick.  This result did not change his position in the standings, and Junior will begin The Chase in sixth, only 25 points behind Kenseth.  Junior Nation fans can breathe a sigh of relief after NASCAR's most popular driver failed to make The Chase last season.

 

Rookie Denny Hamlin's (#11 FedEx car) mother sat in his pit stall with her fingers crossed all race, and this may be what helped his Chevy make it to the finish—and The Chase.  Hamlin was strong until motor noises caused alarm among the team about two-thirds of the way through the 400-lap event.  Hamlin finished 15th, one lap down, and would move up two spots in the standings to fifth overall going into Loudon next weekend.

 

Retiring veteran Mark Martin (#6 AAA car) was on the bubble two weeks ago, moved up to ninth last week, and needed to finish fourth to lock himself into The Chase.  Fifth place was good enough for Martin, who was obviously stressed in pre-race interviews, but he will go into The Chase seventh, only 30 points behind Roush Racing teammate Kenseth.  Martin fans will have a lot to cheer for, as the racer from Arkansas has finished second in the season standings several times, but never won the Cup.  Martin will not be driving for Jack Roush next year, as rule changes limit teams to four cars, and so far has no deal signed to drive in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series either.

 

Harvick's RCR teammate Jeff Burton also did what he needed to do: starting second, leading early, and finishing ninth in the race.  Burton would move out of the Chase cellar into eighth overall, leapfrogging Gordon.  This year has been a remarkable turnaround for RCR after failing to field a car in The Chase for the past two seasons.  Now RCR has two strong cars in the field and a good shot with the momentum Harvick is showing.

 

The big loser in Richmond was defending Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart (#20 Home Depot car), who missed The Chase by a mere 16 points.  Stewart's weekend started bad, as he wrecked his primary car only nine laps into Friday practice, then qualified his backup car in 40th.  In typical fashion, "Smoke" drove his way through the field, making it into the top-15 at one point, before the handling on his Chevy went south.  Kahne's strong showing, coupled with his own 18th-place finish, sealed Stewart's fate, dropping him to 11th in the standings.  Perhaps it was fitting, as Stewart spun Sterling Marlin (#14 Waste Management car) early, ostensibly to bring out a caution and prevent himself from going a lap down.  Two-time champion Stewart could not show the domination and consistency he did last summer, and will have to race for the million-dollar bonus for 11th overall at the end of the season.

 

With ten races to go in the season, the top-10 in points are set, and are in a league of their own.  Points to date are thrown out the window, and drivers are separated by five-point increments.  Next week's race at Loudon, New Hampshire starts a new season, and one slip can result in drivers falling out of contention early (a la Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield two years ago). 

 

Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick are showing real momentum going into The Chase.  Kasey Kahne has raced his way in, something a Ray Evernham car has done the past two years.  Jimmie Johnson has laid in wait, running consistently well and saving himself for the final drive.  Teammates Kyle Busch and four-time champion Jeff Gordon are locked in, giving owner Rick Hendrick three cars (the most of any team) in the field this year.  Jack Roush only has two cars this year, as opposed to five last year, but Kenseth is on top and Mark Martin is the sentimental favorite in his last season in the number six car.  Jeff Burton has slipped of late, but has otherwise shown consistency that could result in his first championship.  Joe Gibbs' Racing will be in The Chase again this year, but the surprise is that it's rookie Denny Hamlin, rather than veteran Stewart. Fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Junior could be a dark horse, running well down the stretch in 2004.

 
Here are the standings entering The Chase for The Nextel Cup, going into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway next Sunday:
 
 
Pos. 
Car#Driver    Make

Sponsor 

 Points  Behind 
  1

 17

Matt Kenseth Ford

DeWalt Tools

5050

--
  2 48Jimmie JohnsonChevy

Lowe's Home Improvement

5045

-5 

  3 29Kevin HarvickChevy 

GM Goodwrench

5040

-10 

  4  5Kyle BuschChevyKellogg's 

5035

-15 

  5 11Denny HamlinChevyFed Ex

5030

-20 

  6  8Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ChevyBudweiser

5025

-25 

  7  6Mark Martin FordAAA

5020

-30 

  8 31Jeff BurtonChevyCingular

5015

-35 

  9 24Jeff GordonChevyDuPont

5010

-40 

 10  9Kasey KahneDodgeDodge Dealers/UAW

5005

-45 

 
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