Saturday, June 25, 2011
As a member of the latter group, I'm still disappointed to still see just two lone road course races on the Sprint Cup circuit in California's wine country and the Finger Lakes in New York. However, recent additions to NASCAR's second-tier series, the Nationwide Series, has brought me great joy, along with some great racing. While we never see Mustangs or Challengers at Infineon, the Nationwide Series does stop at the Glen, along with two more road courses not featured in NASCAR's premier series: Road America and Montreal. Montreal has been on the schedule since 2007, and has provided many memorable moments in a short amount of time, including an exciting photo finish between Max Papis and Boris Said last year.
Road America, meanwhile, made its debut last year, with mayhem and intense racing around the 14 turn course. This year, the action was even more intense, and as the laps wound down more and more drivers emerged as contenders and had the opportunity to win, only to see it slip from their hands.
Entering the race, Jacques Villeneuve was among the favorites to contend for the victory in the second race at the Wisconsin track. He didn't disappoint, as in the first half of the race he led several laps and battled hard with Michael McDowell to try to keep it, including on the lap 25 restart, when he pulled out of line before ultimately passing McDowell later in the lap. However, due to his action on the restart, Villeneuve was forced to serve a drive-through penalty for violating NASCAR's restart procedure, costing him valuable track position. He spent the final 50 percent of the race rallying aggressively, most notably on the first green-white checkered attempt when he went to the grass attempting to overtake Brian Scott, resulting in contact that sent Scott spinning and Max Papis into the concrete barrier. The incident also cost Villeneuve several more positions, costing Jacques a chance at the victory, although he was able to salvage a 3rd place finish.
However, McDowell was also a favorite entering the race. McDowell was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that has simply dominated the Nationwide Series for several years, and for the driver with road racing roots it was a rare opportunity to contend for a victory in NASCAR. The driver who is forced to start-and-park in most of the Sprint Cup efforts due to lack of sponsorship, earned the pole and took no prisoners in his quest for his first career win, leading the most laps in the race. His aggressive moves appeared to pay off as he was driving into the sunset with 4 laps to go of the 50 that were scheduled. However, Doug Harrington's spin changed the outcome of the race dramatically, and ultimately led to three green-white-checkered attempts. On the second attempt, McDowell was passed by Justin Allgaier for the lead, and in the following corner he went off the course and spun, his opportunity to win fading away along with the dust from his off-road excursion into the air. McDowell with rally furiously from the back of the pack and, despite another incident in the final green-white-checkered attempt, finish 12th, impressive considering the circumstances but nonetheless disappointing for the driver that 16 miles from victory.
Justin Allgaier was far from being a favorite to win the race on Saturday. While he is among the top drivers in the Nationwide Series, with two wins in his short career along with a spot in contention for the championship, he isn't considered to be among the top road course drivers on the tour. However, the young driver took the white flag while in the lead, and when the caution came out for Aric Almirola getting stuck in the gravel trap it appeared that Allgaier had earned his second victory of the season. Just a matter of seconds after the caution had flown, however, Allgaier's car ran out of fuel, and he went from tasting the spoils of victory to finishing in 19th.
When the caution came out on the final lap, Allgaier's Turner Motorsports teammate Reed Sorenson was running second, with Ron Fellows 3rd. Fellows was among the favorites to win, with a rich history of road racing success in his career, and when he passed not only the idle Allgaier but also Sorenson under caution, it appeared that he may add to that success, and NASCAR for a time said that Sorenson had failed to maintain pace speed when the caution came out, and declared Fellows was the race leader. After reviewing replays that showed Fellows running at nearly full speed around the circuit after the caution came out, violating caution procedures. Ultimately, minutes after the checkered flag waived, NASCAR overturned its original ruling, and gave the victory to Sorenson, leaving Fellows in second.
While Allgaier was among the last people expected to head to victory lane at the conclusion of Saturday's race, his teammate Sorenson was looked upon as even less likely to notch a win. In each road course race in the Nationwide Series last year, Sorenson was taken out of the car in place of Villeneuve due to his inexperience on road courses. However, in the midst of a championship battle this season, Sorenson was able to maintain his ride. After a dramatic series of events in the final laps of the race, Sorenson not only found himself in victory lane for the first time since 2007, but also vaulted from third to the top of the Nationwide Series championship standings.
All of these storylines played out in a race that this NASCAR fan won't soon forget, and these don't even take into the other storylines that I overlooked, including Max Papis' attempt to earn a victory after coming just short in the most recent road course race in Montreal, or the constantly changing championship picture with ever turn, and the trials and tribulations of the Nationwide Series regulars, all in one action-packed race.
This is not atypical of road course racing, it seems more often than not there is lots of action and drama in the left and right hand turns of road course races. It is for this reason that I, along with many others, contend that road courses at the very least deserve a spot in the Chase, if not a couple more dates on the overall schedule. Until the day comes in which that is the case, if that day ever comes, I will treasure every exciting lap we get to witness on the road courses in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. The best part is, there's 110 more laps of racing coming up today.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
I found myself lucky enough to have a ticket for Bristol in my possession this past weekend, and I made the long drive down from upstate New York to congregate with 159,999 other passionate Nascar fans to see "racin' the way it ought'a be!"
Through Friday and Saturday, I enjoyed some extra leg room as the stands were nowhere near their 160,000 person capacity, but figured that, surely, that wouldn't be the case on Sunday.
Turns out it was, as only about 120,000 people attended the race at a track where tickets used to sell out as quick as they were offered. Don't believe me? In August of 1982, the track enjoyed a sellout crowd. From then on, there wasn't a single vacant seat at the track until March 2010.
From my vantage point, I could see that from turn two down the end of the back straightaway had the most open seats, with entire sections of seats vacant.
As I spectated my first Bristol race in person, I discovered why. This historic track, known for its white-knuckle racing, has been reduced to the type of racing you would find at Dover. I don't mean to downgrade racing at Dover, which is entertaining in its own right, but that isn't why a fan goes to Bristol. A fan goes to Bristol to see the type of racing that made it famous in the first place; drivers banging doors, the bump-n'-run, and tempers flaring as 500 laps of chaos take their toll.
That simply wasn't seen on Sunday. In fact, since the track was reconfigured in 2007, it has been lost. Of course there are those little highlights in the four years since, such as the incidents between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch in the 2008 night race, but that type of action is hardly the norm. Now, the drivers are able to use the entire racetrack, which eliminates most of the bumpin' and bangin' that used to excite us so much. Instead, we have drivers running side-by-side in the corners instead of moving each other out of the way and causing tempers to flare.
Oh, but don't fool yourself. Very rarely does the side-by-side navigation of the corners result in much, as more often than not the driver on the high side gets the run off the corner and they're back single file by the time they enter the next corner, and this process repeats for 500 laps, and short track racing simply isn't supposed to be that way. Good short track racing is different from good speedway racing. On speedways, having drivers side-by-side is exciting enough, but on short tracks you want to see drivers getting into each other, moving each other out of the way and ultimately trying to be the last man standing when the checkered flag falls.
Instead of that action though, we have sub-par side-by-side racing, at best, at a track that used to showcase some of the best action Nascar had to offer all year. Now, its just another track on the circuit. Just another race to take a nap during the middle of. Just another track with plummeting ticket sales. Just another race with declining TV ratings. All because someone had the bright idea to change a track that was perfect the way it was, with 36 degrees of banking in each of the corners, with tight-quarters racing throughout. They decided to spend millions reconfiguring the entire track, ultimately for no reason as the track didn't have to have a new surface like Daytona, Talladega and Martinsville have had in recent years, and ruined the track in the process.
To put it perfectly clear, I have been a die-hard Nascar fan since 2003. I haven't missed a single race, having recorded any race I couldn't sit and watch live. I've also had the pleasure of attending two races at Watkins Glen, just outside of turn 1 on each occasion. In all that time of watching a race, only once had I yawned, and that was during the Dover race last year. I think it should be noted that in that instance I hadn't slept in 36 hours, so Dover gets a pass.
However, in the middle of turns three and four with forty-three cars rushing by with the sound of each of their motors roaring throughout the stands and on into the valley, I found myself resting my head on my hands yawning, and on more than one occasion. It should be noted that, in this instance, I had slept a solid ten hours the previous night. That's how lackluster the racing truly was.
“When you have gas prices that are 50 to 70 cents more per gallon than a year ago, and 46 percent of your race fans are traveling from distances six hours or more, that’s probably going to have an effect,” Kevin Triplett, vice president of public affairs at BMS, said in regards to the decline in attendance this year.
To that I point out that I make a mere $7.40 per hour at my current job, come from a family is far from wealthy, yet I saved up my money to purchase two tickets for the race and spent a nice sum of money on the gas it took to drive a total of 2,100 miles to and from the track, all to be able to see what I believed was a must-see race. Before the weekend, I had aspirations of saving up to see the night race as well, but now that I have seen in person what the racing at Bristol has been reduced to, Charlotte (or just about any track for that matter) is looking like a much better choice.
At any rate, the price of gas didn't stop me from coming the first time. The fifteen hour drive each way didn't stop me. The fact I was going to have to stay awake overnight to drive back up to New York, go to classes on the following day and work until midnight before I slept again didn't even stop me. All of those things wouldn't have stopped me from going to the Bristol night race, either, but the racing has.
Time for the disclaimers:
-While the racing at Bristol was disappointing, the weekend itself wasn't. The "Family Fun Night" thing they had on Friday evening was a lot of fun, and was worth the drive alone.
-Speaking of "Family Fun Night," I met Eric McClure and he couldn't have been a better guy. He talked to my friend and I for a good half hour, and gained two fans in the process.
-Sorry I haven't written anything in so long! I've been really busy with work, classes and most recently a trip to Bristol, haha. However I had some time today and a rant to share.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
The Daytona 500 has been a struggle for Johnson since his 2006 win, but expect him to rebound at his home track, where he has dominated in recent years, and also earned his first career win back in 2002.
2. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth had a strong showing in the Daytona 500, and Roush Fenway Racing is infamous for dominating the February event at Auto Club. Don't be surprised if he earns the win in Fontana once again this year.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya had a solid finish in the 500 last week, and should be among your favorites for Fontana. Last year Montoya was strong on the long, flat tracks, and is still eager to get his first oval victory in Nascar, and he just may get it at Fontana.
4. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin came out of Daytona with a mediocre finish, and spent his practice time rattling rookie Brad Keselowski's cage. Hamlin had a strong car at Fontana last fall before wrecking from the lead on a restart. Hamlin needs to maintain his focus if he wants to come out on top, and stop worrying about trying to get into Keselowski's head.
5. Mark Martin
Martin's attempt to win his first Daytona 500 came up short, but his bid to earn his first championship is just beginning. Martin was strong on just about any size track last year, with Fontana being no exception as he earned a 4th place finish in the fall race. Look for Martin to have a solid points day at Fontana.
6. Carl Edwards
Edwards had a strong speedweeks, and now looks forward to racing at Fontana. Cousin, soon to be father, Carl has had lots of success at Fontana's sister track Michigan, and also has earned a win at Fontana. He is one of only four drivers to finish in the top 10 in both races last year, and should be expected to that, and possibly more, again today.
7. Jamie McMurray
Who saw him coming? McMurray has risen back to the top since returning back to Earnhardt/Ganassi, winning the Daytona 500 and earning the pole for today's race. McMurray is looking to assert himself as a contender, and he may just prove that he is by the end of race 26.
8. Kurt Busch
Busch's speedweeks were miserable, with a couple of torn up racecars and a 23rd place finish in the 500. Kurt will be looking forward to returning to Fontana, where he also finished in the top 10 in both races in 2009.
9. Tony Stewart
Stewart started speedweeks with a bang, flexing his muscles in the Budweiser Shootout and almost winning his duel race. However in the 500 he was a non-factor at the end, finishing 22nd after leading none of the race's 200 laps. He should perform much better at Fontana, where he finished in the top ten in both 2009 races.
10. Kasey Kahne
Kahne was also strong early in speedweeks, finishing 2nd in the Budweiser Shootout and winning his duel race. However in the 500 he fell victim to a late race wreck and finished 30th. Kahne had a top ten run going in the fall race last year before a wreck ended his day, look for him to run top 10 once again.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt gave his fans something to cheer for during speedweeks as he started second and rallied late to finish second in the 500. Now the real test for Jr. begins, as he'll need to perform well on tracks such as Fontana if he wants to make the Chase this year.
12. Jeff Gordon
Gordon's speedweeks can be summed up in one work: crash. Gordon wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout, he wrecked in his duel race, and he wrecked on the final restart of the Daytona 500. Gordon needs to put Daytona behind him and get back on track with a solid finish at Fontana, where he finished 2nd in both races last year.
Greg Biffle - Biffle made a pass for the lead while taking the white flag, but couldn't hold on to earn his first win at Daytona since his rookie season. Regardless, he finished 3rd and has been dominant at Fontana in the past.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick had a solid day at Daytona, finishing 7th after having led the most laps. A strong run at Fontana will put him on the right path to make the Chase.
David Reuttimann - Reuttimann started out the year strong with a top-5 finish. Look for him to contend to win some races this year and possibly be a dark horse to make the Chase.
Martin Truex Jr. - Truex finished 6th in his first race with Michael Waltrip racing. This week will be a test of how well MWR can do on non-plate tracks.
Kyle Busch - Have to mention Busch, he's been solid at Fontana the past few years and should be up front once again today.
Monday, February 8, 2010
In last year's Shootout there was exciting four wide action in the final laps until a last lap crash in turn three gave Kevin Harvick the win just moments after he made the winning pass around Jamie McMurray. This year's race was set up for another climatic finish, as it restarted with 2 laps to go.
Entering turn one, Harvick made what would become the winning pass on Greg Biffle, though Biffle raced him side-by-side down the backstretch, with a strong push from Jeff Gordon and teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who had dominated the early stages of the event. However, entering turn three contact between Gordon and Biffle sent Biffle around as the cars on the outside line piled into each other, while Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray snuck by as the yellow came out.
Talk about a letdown of a finish. 78 laps of fantastic racing was all leading up to the race ending before the cars could get wound up to full speed. If only there could have been another shot at the restart, maybe the race would have had the finish it deserved.
The unfortuanate part of it all is that the race not only would have been better if it had finished under green, but it was supposed to.
"On TV it said it must end under green," third place finisher Jamie McMurray said in a post-race interview. Even race winner Kevin Harvick mentioned it during his interview on Speed channel's Nascar Victory Lane, after being asked when he knew he had won the Shootout.
"Let me just tell you, on the entry blanket it says 'race must finish under green,'" Harvick replied. "They're celebrating and I'm like, 'I don't think thats right.' I said 'race finish under green' is what I saw on the flyer. I never said anything on the radio until I saw the checkered flag."
Despite this, the race was ended for a wreck in turn three coming to the white flag. We can only speculate how the event may have concluded had another restart followed, though according to McMurray the race may have been best ending the way it had.
"There wouldn't have been anything left. They would have just kept wrecking."
Monday, February 1, 2010
Are you surprised? You shouldn't be, there's no need to explain why this man is on top of these rankings, considering that he is, and has been for the last four years, on top of the Nascar world. Johnson may not be the points leader in the early months of the season, but when it counts towards the end of the season he'll be right where he wants to be, its up to the other 42 drivers out there to make sure he doesn't stay there. Until that happens though, Johnson stays where he's been for so long: the top.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin had a fighting chance at the title in 2009, but an accident while leading at Fontana and mechanical failures at Charlotte and Talladega kept Hamlin from keeping touch with Johnson, despite earnign two wins at Martinsville and Homestead over the last five races. Despite those issues, Hamlin finished a solid fifth in the final standings, and despite a torn ACL he is one of the favorites to take the championship from Johnson in 2010. Hamlin will only get better as he matures, all he needs is a little good luck to come his way to win it all.
3. Jeff Gordon
On the final race weekend of 2009, Rick Hendrick announced that Gordon was committed to racing full time through at least 2013, indicating that Gordon still has a lot left in the tank. His performance last year shows it as well, with a win and eight second place finishes to his credit, and a third place finish in the final point standings. If Gordon can get things rolling at the right time of the season and close out races strong, he will be among the drivers racing for the title at Homestead.
4. Tony Stewart
Talk about an instant success, Stewart took a team that was sub-par at best and turned it into a championship caliper team, winning four races and making the Chase, silencing all critics of his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing to start his own team. Stewart should perform well once again in 2010, will the foundations of Stewart/Haas Racing clearing well in place.
5. Mark Martin
Remember way back when this guy was retiring in 2005? With a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports to drive full time through 2011, that clearly is a long forgotten memory for the 51 year old veteran. Five wins and his fifth second place championship finish in 2009 show that he can still perform on the track, and his sophomore year with Hendrick Motorsports may just be the one where he finally rids himself of the title "best driver to never win a championship."
6. Kurt Busch
Busch rounded out 2009 with a fourth place finish in points, with wins at Atlanta and Texas to his credit. Roger Penske will look for Busch to have continued success, as he continues to lead the team as Sam Hornish Jr. continues his transition from open wheel racing and Brad Keselowski begins his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series. If 2009 is any indication, the Blue Deuce will be a contended on the 1.5 milers, a complete package in 2010 will put Busch in the hunt for his second championship.
7. Kyle Busch
Coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign where he won four races but failed to make the twelve man Chase at the end of the season Busch will be more determined than ever to win races and compete for a title. Watch out for Busch in the 500 as well, he had strong cars in both the 2008 and 2009 Daytona 500s, and had a streak of three consecutive finishes of 2nd or better heading into the 2009 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona when he wrecked from the lead coming to the checkered flag.
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montaya hit the high point of his short Nascar career in 2009, failing to earn a win despite coming close in several races, including the Brickyard 400, but made the Chase for the first time and finished 8th in the final standings. Montoya should continue to improve, earning a wins on ovals and making the Chase. If he can get things to go his way in the final 10 events, he can upset Johnson when the checkered flag flies at Homestead.
9. Carl Edwards
Edwards was supposed to be the one to prevent Johnson from earning a fourth championship, instead he earned fewer top fives than he had wins in 2008, and finished 11th in the final championship standings. Cousin Carl shouldn't stay down long, though, as he'll attempt a resurgance in 2010. If the 99 runs the way it did in 2008, Edwards will be in position to give Jack Roush his third championship. However, Bob Osborne has a lot of work to do to get the team running at that high a level.
10. Kasey Kahne
With rumors spreading that Kahne might leave Richard Petty Motorsports after the 2010 season in favor of a better team, you can expect RPM to the majority of its resources into its star driver. Kahne's 11 career are proof of Kahne's driving ability, its up to RPM to give him the equipment he needs to succeed.
11. Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing struggled throughout the 2009 season, with each of its four teams failing to reach victory lane. However, Burton's Caterpilla Impala SS came close in the final races of 2009, earning three top-5's in the final three races. Expect that momentum to rollover into 2010, and for Burton to make his way back towards the top of the standings with consistent finishes each week.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Are you surprised? You should be, Earnhardt's 2009 campaign was dreadful at best, as the 88 team managed to earn just five top-10's in 36 races, with none in the final 12 races of the season. So, why is he ranked so high? Its simple, Earnhardt is coming into the 2010 season a new man, focused more on racing and confident in his team's ability to give what he needs to succeed, as Lance McGrew begins his first full season as Earnhardt's crew chief. You simply cannot keep a star like Earnhardt down, which is why I'm going out on a limb and predicting a resurrection of the fourth Hendrick team.
Ryan Newman - Newman silently made the Chase alongside teammate Stewart. Expect Newman to make a highlight reel or two in 2010, without flipping his car.
Matt Kenseth - The 2003 champion is coming off his first season in which he did not make the Chase. Expect Kenseth to get back on track in 2010, with consistency being a key to success.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick was part of the misery that was Richard Childress Racing in 2009. He'll be driven to get out of the gutter and back to the headlines in 2010.
Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose's oval effort improved dramatically in 2009, and continued improvement in 2010 may just see Ambrose sneak his way into the Chase.
Brian Vickers - Vickers earned the second win of his career at Michigan and made the Chase for the first time, but had little success in the season's final ten races. Vickers and crew would certainly appreciate a second chance to show what they can do when it matters most.
Monday, November 2, 2009
"Even now, I'm getting e-mails that convey not shock and horror over Newman's crash, but claim that Sunday's race was too boring... never mind that whole guy-landing-on-his-roof thing."
Well, to some extent, yes forget about it. Flips have happened at Talladega for years, until this year I've never heard such drama over it. The wreck here in the spring in which Edwards was sent flying into the catchfence has some validity for complaints because it was a threat to the fans. I believe it is important to note that in response to this accident the restrictor plates were made even smaller to bring down the speeds from the 208mph they were just before that wreck ensued to a somewhat tamer 199 maximum speed on Sunday. Along with this, the catch fence was raised to add more security for the fans.
The wreck this past Sunday does not bother me though. That's right, it doesn't bother me. I will be disappointed if I see any changes made based upon Newman's flip, because the simple truth is that its racing. That flip was the first genuine aerodynamic flip rather than one caused by simple brute force in the COT (Edwards' car was on its way back to the ground when Newman hit him back into the air in the spring), and the odds of it happening are very slight. Why?
Well, the last flip at Talladega before this year was in 2005 when Scott Riggs ricocheted off the frontstretch wall and flipping on the asphalt just inside of the start/finish line. That happened the be the third straight fall Talladega race in which a car went airborne (didn't hear much complaining about it back then, though). The time since includes the three races in the COT from 2007-2008 which were relatively tame wreck wise.
The precautions put in place by NASCAR are plenty to keep the fans and drivers as safe as possible, with Newman a little sore after his flip but otherwise uninjured. Heck though, that fluke flip is just showing how dangerous Talladega is, we need to stop racing there. Oh and while we're at it, how about we stop going to Daytona too since it features the same type of racing, minus all the complaining (was anybody boo-hooing about safety when Newman flipped for the first time? How about Waltrip? Bowyer?). Put Dover on the list too, there was a flip there, too. Oh yeah and Texas. Remember McDowell's wreck? That sure did look scary, gotta stop racing there now, too...
If you want to complain about anything to Nascar following Sunday's race, complain about the quality of the racing. I don't think this is a point I need to explain, the amount of single file racing was quite simply ridiculous. This isn't anything new, its something the drivers have done in the past on numerous occasions, but not to the extent it was on Sunday, which was a result of Nascar's attempt to control the wrecking at Talladega (see fluke wreck to see how well they managed to do that) by telling the drivers how they were to race and threatening them with penalties if they did not race the way they were instructed.
First of all, Nascar's attempt to tell the drivers how to drive is quite simply dumb, the drivers know what they're doing out there better than anyone else, for Helton and company to try and tell them how to race was ludicrous, and I think that as much as the single file racing was to avoid penalty it was much to make a point. Nascar's confidence in the drivers is so low, they must forget it was only 7 years ago that a caution-free race was run at 'Dega.
Complain about that if you will, but don't freak out over a fluke wreck on the backstretch. Treat it the same way Sadler's flip in 2003 (which was worse in my opinion), be happy that the safety measures in Nascar have come so far in keeping the drivers safe, rather than compain about an uncontrollable element of an uncontrollable sport. This is auto racing, every driver knows the risk they are taking when they strap into the cars before every event, to think that there wasn't somewhat of an element of danger would be naive, to try to solve one of the elements that separates this sport from most would be foolish.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
This year I unfortuanately haven't been able to keep up with writing very often, let alone every week, but now I'm sitting in front of my computer with not much better to do (besides maybe sleep, but that is overrated anyways), so here it is; the return of the Power Rankings: Chase Edition! I'm going to rank the 12 Chase drivers based on their performance this season, their performance on the Chase tracks in their career and the momentum they gained in the races preceding the Chase. So without further ado, here are my rankings!
1. Mark Martin
This was one of the hardest positions to rank, but in the end I pick the old man to finally lose the title of "greatest driver that didn't win a championship." He enters the Chase riding a 3-race top-5 streak, and after the seeding of the Chase drivers holds a 10 point lead over Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Martin's greatest weapons for the final 10 races are his consistency and his ability to contend for the win at just about any track remaining on the schedule. Expect especially strong runs out of Martin at Kansas and Fontana, whose sister tracks (Chicagoland and Michigan) he won at earlier this season. Martinsville is another lock for a top-10, where Hendrick equipment has been the class of the field for the better part of this decade.
Martin's weakness may be the crapshoot of the Chase: Talladega. Martin's best finish on a plate track this year is 16th in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. In the Aaron's 499 he was involved in a wreck that occurred on lap 6, and in the Coke-Zero 400 he suffered a similar fate just before halfway, relegating him to 43rd and 38th place finishes. A similar performance will leave Martin with an uphill battle for the championship. A solid run, however, may be all he needs to succeed.
2. Jimmie Johnson
This man is the reason why Martin was so hard to pick to win the championship. I don't think I need to tell you what Johnson has done the last three times he made the Chase... the simple fact of that matter is when it has come down to crunch time, Johnson has topped them all... not once, not twice, but three times... in a row. Do not count Johnson out unless he is mathematically eliminated from contention, otherwise, he's still a huge threat to defend his championship. Johnson is guaranteed to run well at both Martinsville at Lowe's, where he has earned 11 wins between the two tracks. If Johnson runs like he usually does this time of year, odds are pretty good that total will increase to 13.
Johnson's weakness would have to be his momentum... his results the last few races have not been up to the standards of the three-time champion, and usually at this point in the season he has rolled off a series of strong finishes entering the Chase. Though Johnson has come back from early defecits to win the championship in years past, he may not have a team this year that can come back from a large defecit, especially with consistent drivers like teammate Martin also vying for the championship.
3. Tony Stewart
Who would have thought last year when Stewart announced he was going to start driving as a driver/owner with Stewart/Haas Racing that success would come so quickly for the veteran in his 11th season on the circuit? With wins at Pocono, Daytona and Watkins Glen this season, Stewart proved just how wise that decision was. Stewart will be sure to have good runs at New Hampshire and Kansas, two tracks where he already boasts victories and consistently runs up-front.
Working against Stewart are his recent performances. Following the race at Watkins Glen, Stewart was sitting pretty, with three wins and only four finishes outside the top-10 through 22 races. In the four races since, however, he's failed to finish better than 11th, and simply hasn't looked as good as he did in the first 22 races. If that is any indication of how he is going to do in these final ten races, the dream season will become a nightmare.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon has failed to earn a championship under the Chase format, with best finishes of 3rd and 2nd in 2004 and 2007. This year consistency has been the strength of the 24 team, which is tied for most top-10's on the circuit with 18 and is second in top-5's with 12. He is sure to run well at Fontana, where he finished 2nd earlier this season and finished 2nd in each of the races at sister track Michigan, along with Martinsville, where he has earned a top-10 in 13 consecutive races and has never failed to finish.
Gordon's weakness is that his team isn't a winning team. Its a top-5 team week in and week out, but it hasn't been able to take the performances one step higher into wins, with the exception of his win at Texas earlier this year. With this being the case, Gordon cannot afford to have a bad race to keep up with the other Chasers. Should a spark be ignited in this team for the final ten races though, Gordon may finally earn that elusive 5th championship.
5. Denny Hamlin
Of the 12 drivers entering the Chase, Hamlin may have the most momentum. In the six races before the Chase Hamlin finished in the top-10 in every race. It was also during that span that he earned both of his two season victories, at Pocono and Richmond. Look out for Hamlin on the flat tracks of the Chase, New Hampshire, Martinsville and Phoenix, he has excelled on those tracks since the start of his Sprint Cup Series career.
While Hamlin is a sure bet to contend at the flat tracks, he is just as likely to finish poorly at Dover. Since finishing 11th, 9th and 4th in his first three career starts at the track, Hamlin has not been able to finish higher than 36th at the Monster Mile, wrecking in each race. Don't be surprised if Hamlin finds trouble again at Dover.
6. Kurt Busch
The winner of the inaugural Chase will try to earn his second championship this year, with a team that looks stronger than any he's been on in quite some time. Busch started running well right before the Chase started, including his second place finish at Richmond. Busch is another driver that will perform well at the flat tracks, along with Texas, the sister track to Atlanta where Busch dominated to win earlier this season.
Since that time however, it appears the 1.5 mile program on the 2 team has diminished slightly, so Busch may have to settle for top-10 runs at Kansas, Lowe's, Texas and Homestead. In a Chase with drivers like Johnson, Martin and Stewart all running up front, even top-10's can get you far behind in the points battle.
7. Kasey Kahne
When it comes to the the 1.5 mile tracks in the Chase, watch out for Kahne. In the five races held on 1.5-mile tracks so far this season, Kahne has finished 11th or better in four of them, and the performances have improved as the season has progressed, up until Atlanta two weeks ago when he earned his second (thanks for the correction, Tez!) win of the season. He also should be a contender at Fontana, where he is always solid and has won in the past.
Kahne's worst track among the final 10 on the schedule is by far Martinsville, where only has one career top-5. A top-10 for the 9 crew would be like a win, and might be good enough for them to stay in contention for the championship.
8. Carl Edwards
The driver who won more races than any other driver on the circuit last year has struggled this year, going winless through 26 races and only earning 11 top-10's in that span. That doesn't matter now though as Cousin Carl has made the Chase and is only 40 points behind. With tracks such as Texas, Fontana, Kansas and Homestead where Edwards historically has run exceeding well at, its hard to believe that Edwards won't be able to contend for the championship, let alone find victory lane.
Should Edwards continue to run like he did throughout the course of the first 26 races of the season though, this team might as well start planning for 2010.
9. Brian Vickers
The cinderella story of the Chase; two years ago this was a first year team that wasn't even in the top-35 in points and had failed to qualify for several races. Two years later, Vickers has earned his second career victory and has made the Chase for the first time in his career. With three top-10's in the last four races, it appears that Vickers is peaking at the right time. Look for him to run well at Fontana and Lowe's.
Flat tracks and Vickers don't mix. In his career he has three top-10's at New Hampshire, Martinsville and Phoenix combined. If Vickers and the 83 team want to contend for a championship, this is an area where they'll have to improve drastically.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya
Though he hasn't won a race yet this year, the 2009 season has been the best for the Columbia native since he entered Nascar. The 42 team has a solid 1.5-mile program this year, and Montoya is getting better and better each time he revisits a track. He's on the verge of earning that first win on an oval, don't be shocked if it happens at Texas.
The first two races of the Chase may be the biggest challenge for Montoya, where in 10 starts between the two tracks he's only earned one top-10. His finishes at New Hampshire have steadily improved, however, and a solid run at each track would put him in good position to pull off the upset.
11. Ryan Newman
The other Stewart/Haas driver has been somewhat overlooked due to the success of his teammate and car owner. Newman has by no means been a contender to win every week, but he has been among the most consistent. After starting the year with four finishes outside the top-20, Newman has failed to finish in the top-15 in only six races since. He enters the Chase with three straight top-10's, and would love to start the Chase with a win at New Hampshire, where he already has two wins to his name.
For some reason, Newman hasn't run very well at Homestead. Since the track was reconfigured in 2003, he's earned only one finish higher than 18th. If Newman manages to stay in contention up to race 10, the finale may be where his championship hopes end.
12. Greg Biffle
Biffle has made the Chase for the second consecutive year for the first time in his career, and though he's winless so far in 2009 he'll have several opportunities to change that in the final ten races, with Fontana, Texas and Homestead being among his best tracks.
Biffle hasn't been much of a contender to win for most of the season, with only 8 top-5's this year, but three of those top-5's came in the final seven races. Still, several of the Chase tracks are Biffle's kryptonite, including Talladega and Martinsville, where he has 2 top-10's in 26 starts between the two tracks.