NASCAR

Race to the Chase is the best time of year

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When NASCAR implemented the Chase format in 2004, it probably never imagined that its best points races would unfold in September. After all, the idea behind the Chase was to create a battle for the Cup title that would go right down to the end of the season — in November. But each year it seems as if the best race of the year is the race to the Chase, the late-summer fight when a handful of teams are scratching and clawing and doing everything they can just to make the championship playoffs. It has become NASCAR's version of a pennant race, or akin to the final week of the National Football League's regular season, when teams on the bubble are in must-win situations just to make the playoffs. For a handful of teams with legitimate shots to win the title — Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, perhaps a couple of more — the championship trophy is the ultimate goal. But for the rest, just making the Chase for the Sprint Cup constitutes a major achievement and a successful season. As brilliant of an idea as the Chase was, we have had only one thrilling points race that has gone down to the wire since its inception. (Most have come down to the final race, but only the first was decided in the final laps of the season finale.) By contrast, nearly every season has featured a compelling, 26-race battle just to make it, with some big stars racing their way in during the 26th race of the season at Richmond.

But none have been as close or as compelling as this year's Race to the Chase. With just two races remaining, eight drivers are still fighting for six Chase spots. And they are separated by just 89 points, making this week's race at Atlanta just as critical as next week's cutoff race at Richmond. Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin currently round out the top 10 in points, but none of them is safe. A slip at Atlanta or Richmond, and any of them could suddenly fall out of the top 12. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, in 11th and 12, respectively, are barely hanging on, desperately clinging to the final two Chase spots. Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, meanwhile, are hot on their heels, applying intense pressure in their late rallies to make it. Busch and Vickers, by the way, have won the past two Cup races and have momentum on their sides. Each driver carries a compelling story into Atlanta, adding drama to their efforts to crack the top 12. Newman is trying to give Stewart-Haas Racing two Chase drivers in its first season as a new organization. Biffle continues his quest to become the only driver to win championships in each of NASCAR's top three series. Montoya could make it for the first time, following through on the enormous potential and expectations he brought with him from Formula One three years ago.

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Martin, of course, is the sentimental favorite, threatening to make another championship run at age 50. If he makes it, he would start near the top of the standings, thanks to a series-leading four victories, and continue his career-long quest to win the championship that has eluded him for so long. Kahne is trying to make the Chase field for only the second time and put a Richard Petty-owned car in the Chase for the first time. Kenseth is trying to continue his streak of being one of just two drivers — Johnson is the other — to make the Chase every year since it was implemented. Busch also has four victories and is hoping to return to the Chase for the fourth straight year. He is also NASCAR's most-hated driver, one who can spice up the Chase with his aggressive style and fiery, controversial demeanor. Red Bull Racing's Vickers may be the ultimate underdog. He just won his second Cup race and is threatening to make the Chase for the first time and put his three-year-old Toyota team in championship contention. Never has NASCAR had this much drama and a battle this close in the race to the Chase. Fans should enjoy it while they can, because the actual Chase itself doesn't figure to be nearly as close or as compelling. Unless Martin and Busch get in, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson will be the two biggest race winners in the Chase and appear to be the overwhelming favorites. At this point, Johnson appears poised to win his fourth title in a row, with only Stewart demonstrating the strength to pose a serious challenge. Unless a surprise contender steps up in a big way, it figures to come down to a two-man race. And if it follows the pattern of the past four championship battles, it will be practically decided by the final race, with the would-be champion cruising to the title. With 12 races remaining, the real points race is to see who makes the Chase, earning 10 more weeks in the spotlight and at least a slim chance at NASCAR glory. And that is a battle well worth watching over the next two weeks.


Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers

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