The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup is scheduled to begin this weekend in Loudon, N.H., and the look of the 12-driver field is quite unlike what so-called experts predicted way back in the winter cold of the season opener.
For starters, there’s no Matt Kenseth. This is perhaps the oddest of circumstances, for Kenseth had been a player in every other Chase since the “playoff” format began in 2004, and the start of his 2009 season — victories in the Daytona 500 and at Auto Club Speedway in California the next week — seemed to assure another successful year for the Wisconsin veteran. Kenseth’s season went south — and not in a good way — after those opening weeks of fun and thunder, however, and he dropped out of the Chase field with another grindingly lackluster performance in last week’s final pre-Chase race at Richmond, Va.
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Kenseth doesn’t go to timeout alone, however. He’s joined in NASCAR purgatory by rising superstar Kyle Busch and, stunningly, all four Richard Childress Racing drivers — Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears and Kevin Harvick. A year ago, RCR put three drivers in the Chase. This year, it could do no better than Bowyer’s 15th-place spot in the standings, a widespread failure that led to a late-season shuffling of shop and racetrack duties within the RCR hierarchy.
Also Chaseless, of course, is Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose dismal season has produced no victories and little enthusiasm. He sits a sad 21st in points.
With big names missing NASCAR’s so-called postseason (although it isn’t quite that), there must be a mystery or several inside the top 12. ‘Tis true. There we find Kasey Kahne, who reignited his career with a pair of wins; Brian Vickers, who outperformed nasty rival Kyle Busch at Richmond when the money was on the line; and Juan Pablo Montoya, he of Formula One and IndyCar success and, now, a proven points-racing survivor in NASCAR.
It also surprises some to find ageless superstar Mark Martin and new teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman wearing Chase colors. Stewart and Newman could be forgiven if they had missed the Chase in their first season building a new organization, and Martin, a peculiarity at 50 years old, could have acted his age and rolled home somewhere in the nether regions of the point standings. Instead, he won four times and will lead the standings entering Chase Race One.
So, on a summer-turns-to-autumn weekend in the wilds of southern New Hampshire, we unleash an eclectic collection of drivers in the sixth Chase for a championship and the seemingly eternal quest to put the brakes on Jimmie Johnson, who has won three straight titles and seems a very good bet to win a record fourth in a row.
Meanwhile, as Martin, Stewart, Johnson and company chase fame and folding money, others chase their tails. For those who failed somewhat spectacularly this season, the remaining weeks of this schedule are more about 2010 than 2009, more about refueling, reorganizing and recalibrating than redemption.
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This is true in no bigger terms than at Richard Childress Racing, whose four drivers limped into the Chase period with an ugly total of 0 victories and only one pitiful shot — that by Bowyer, who didn’t come close — to make the Chase in the final qualifying race at Richmond. Harvick, once Childress’ top gun, is a shocking 22nd in points.
Clearly, the RCR drivers, so authoritative last year, have been running in sour circles this season, their performances generally upstaged by unlikely guys such as David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose, both of whom run higher in points than three Childress drivers. At RCR, it’s not a case of one driver being off but rather an organization losing its direction, and team owner Richard Childress began the healing process in late summer by moving personnel within the shop.
Other people also have work to do. Although Roush Fenway Racing has two drivers — Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle — in the Chase, the sport’s only powerhouse Ford team can’t escape what has been a difficult year. None of the team’s drivers has touched Victory Lane since Kenseth won the season’s first two races, a seven-month stretch of futility. While Edwards and Biffle seek to win a race or two and the championship, team ramrod Jack Roush will be looking for ways to bolster the entire operation.
And then there’s the continuing riddle of Earnhardt Jr., winless since June 2008 and a clear failure in what some expected to be a monster season — monster as in successful, not as in scary — in his second year with Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt Jr. continues to be the sport’s most popular driver, but he isn’t winning anything else these days. While Martin, the old man of his team, starts the Chase atop the standings, Junior can only hope the final months of the season provide some spark for 2010.
Now, with 10 races left, 12 drivers run for the money, and everyone else runs toward daylight, an opening some will find quite difficult to locate.
Mike Hembree is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.