Chase Viewer's Guide: Round 1

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

On SPEED's The Chase is On, Carl Edwards compared the Chase for the Nextel Cup to bowling. Each team has 10 frames, and they had better not roll a gutterball. Last year, Jimmie Johnson got off to a slow start in the Chase, but in races 5-9 he finished first or second every week, allowing him to finish ninth at Homestead for the win. This year's winner won't be able to fall in such a deep hole. Teams have always had a mulligan or a gutterball, but I agree with Edwards. There are too many good teams for that to happen this year. Picking the champion is difficult because so many guys have momentum right now. Jeff Gordon has been spectacular all year. Jimmie Johnson has won the last two races. Over the last 11 races, Kurt Busch has been a contender every week. Were the Richard Childress Racing cars being conservative coming into the Chase? Jeff Burton said, "It's all or nothing now." Tony Stewart has momentum, and I really do believe that momentum is important.

On Friday morning, Edwards was really relaxed before practice. Then he wheel-hopped in Turn 3, hit the wall and had to go to a backup car. Although it may be a homer pick since he's my co-host on The Chase is On, if Edwards can get out of Loudon OK, he's driven to win the title this year. Last year, it really tore him up to miss the Chase, and he was miserable. Don't forget how close he came to winning the 2005 title, finishing only 35 points out of the top spot.

Who to Watch at Loudon

  • Jeff Burton: Although he hasn't won at Loudon since 2000, any driver with four wins at a track — including leading every single lap in 2000 — has got to be considered the favorite.
  • Denny Hamlin: With a win in the first Car of Tomorrow race at this track in July, Hamlin is one of the favorites. The tougher the track, the better he seems to run.
  • Jeff Gordon: Like Burton, Gordon has multiple wins (3) at this track, but he hasn't won in a while here (1998). The No. 24 team has been spectacular almost every week, and I'm not exaggerating. They've been turning in top fives and top 10s and leading laps.
  • Kurt Busch: The No. 2 car had a good run in July until he got hit at the end by David Ragan. He's going to be very good.
  • Tony Stewart: The No. 20 team has tested extensively. They have good equipment every week, and they're well-prepared. Like Carl Edwards, Stewart missed last year's Chase, and it was extremely difficult for both of these proud drivers so they have something to prove.
  • What to Watch

  • Front row has no fear: Last year, rookie Denny Hamlin said every day was like Christmas because he didn't feel like he belonged. It made him dangerous because he felt like he had nothing to lose. Making the Chase was a bonus, and he was very relaxed. The same holds true this year for front-row starters Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. They've never been in the Chase, and they don't know what to expect. Both deserve to be in it and there aren't a lot of expectations on them, so it will be interesting to see how they handle it. On Friday, Truex came out of the back of his truck, and he was swarmed by reporters. Taking nothing away from Truex, you wouldn't see that happen on another weekend, but now that he's in the Chase, he's become one of the big names in the sport.
  • Know when to hold 'em: The Chasers are not in a position to gamble. Non-Chaser Kasey Kahne said that he might trade two tires for track position late in the race, but the top 12 drivers won't take only two. Last week on SPEED's Wind Tunnel, Kurt Busch said that drivers need to average a seventh-place finish to win the title. If a Chaser finishes in the top 10 this week, he's accomplished his mission. Meanwhile, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears and Ryan Newman can and probably will gamble to win a race.
  • Getting better with the COT: Teams have made dramatic advances with improvements to the Car of Tomorrow. All of them may not be in love with it, but they are figuring out how to make them faster and turn better. That's the key to Loudon: making the car roll through the center and turn. If you don't get into the corner, the problem gets magnified. If you have a bad entry, you're going to have a bad middle. If you have a bad middle, you're going to have a bad exit.
  • Speed Mail Steve

  • Passing takes time: Tony Stewart has said that it might take 25 laps to pass a guy. If you find a place on the racetrack to get the guy, you've got to be patient because it's a flat track without the banking to allow you to easily take another line.
  • Tires should be fine: Although there were blown tires at Richmond last week with this same tire, it shouldn't be a concern this week. Running them last week will help tremendously, even though the configuration and banking are different.
  • Pit Perspective

    As Silly Season continues with reports of Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving the No. 88 next year, a lot of changes are still in play. People like Scott Riggs are figuring out their future. I keep hearing from good sources that Dario Franchitti is headed to Ganassi. What will David Stremme do? Everyone is focused on the Chase, but there's a lot yet to determine for the 2008 season.

    Finish Line

    Where you start at Loudon doesn't have much of an influence on where you finish, because Jeff Burton won from 38th at this track in 1999. But your strategy early in this race — getting track position and being able to hold it — is the key. Getting and keeping track position are two different things. If you gamble early, you can get out front, but you can't give it away. If you give back track position, you'll never see it again.

    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Martin Truex Jr., David Ragan, Carl Edwards, David Stremme, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin

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