With seven races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup gets underway, this year’s championship race is shaping up to be one of the most interesting since the format’s debut in 2004.
Why? New names and new faces. Or in some cases, familiar names returning to familiar places.
After 19 races, there are five drivers currently in the top 12 who did not make the Chase last year.
Four of them are in position to return to the Chase while one — Juan Pablo Montoya — can make it for the first time.
For the past few years, the Chase has been dominated by basically the same drivers, with only two or three moving in and out of the top 12 each year. In the past two years, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have each made the Chase while Johnson and Kenseth have each made it every year since 2004.
NASCAR is starting to develop a pattern with the same group of drivers squaring off for the championship every year. And Johnson, of course, has already established a very significant trend, winning three straight championships. Only his top challengers have changed over the past three seasons.
But this year, we appear to be headed toward a shake-up with some former contenders returning to the Chase and at least one making it for the first time.
Kurt Busch, who won the inaugural Chase, should return this season after missing it last year. Currently fourth in points, this will be his second Chase appearance since moving from Roush Fenway Racing to Penske Racing in 2006.
Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne also are in position to return after missing the Chase the last year or two.
Martin was a perennial championship contender when he drove for Roush and he was in the hunt until the final laps of the 2004 Chase. He missed it the past two years only after cutting back to a partial schedule.
In his first year since returning to a full schedule, Martin is right back where you would expect him to be. He is 11th in points but leads the series with four wins, putting him in prime position to be at or near the top of the standings if he makes it.
Newman made the Chase in the first two years of the new format, but missed it three straight seasons with Penske Racing. After moving to Stewart-Haas Racing this season, he is seventh in points and poised to join teammate and points leader Tony Stewart in the championship showdown.
Kahne has also had an up-and-down Chase career despite winning 10 races over the past six years. Kahne just missed making the inaugural Chase before making it for the first time in 2006. He missed it again in 2007 and 2008 before rebounding this season under the newly named Richard Petty Motorsports. His recent victory at Infineon Raceway and some newfound consistency have Kahne eighth in points.
The potential newcomer to the party is Montoya, who has flashed enormous potential since arriving in 2007 from Formula One but has not been able to find any consistency.
This year, Montoya is on a streak of seven top-10 finishes in his last 10 races to climb to ninth in points. The native of Colombia could be the first driver to make his first Chase appearance since Martin Truex Jr. in 2007.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that some perennial Chase contenders are on the verge of not making it.
Richard Childress Racing has put all three of its drivers in the Chase the past two years, with Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton making it three years in a row. Currently, all three are outside the top 12 and in danger of missing the big show.
Harvick, 25th in points, is almost certain to miss it, while Burton and Clint Bowyer are still struggling to get in.
Greg Biffle, who has finished second and third in the Chase, is also scrambling to climb back into the top 12 while Dale Earnhardt Jr., who made it last year, is a longshot at 21st in points.
Those five could be replaced by Busch, Newman, Kahne, Martin and Montoya. And ironically, all five have decent chances to win this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, fortifying their Chase chances. Though none has ever won at the Brickyard, all five have been in contention in recent years.
All five have scored top-five finishes at Indy with Kahne and Montoya both finishing second. Martin has the best average finish of any driver there at 7.3.
The way they are running this season, any of the five could win at Indy.
Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.