The race to get into the Chase to the Sprint Cup is a marathon over 26 grueling races.
And for the eight teams that moved from pretenders to title contenders on Saturday night, that race was far from easy.
Sure, Tony Stewart was locked into the postseason after taking the green flag at Michigan, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon followed suit at Bristol, and Denny Hamlin joined the Chase party after Atlanta. But for the remainder of the Chase candidates, their seasons were not nearly as consistent.
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Certainly, the lack of predictability created drama for the drivers. But in their quest to qualify for the Chase, many can point to one or two game-changing moments that improved their paths to the postseason.
Mark Martin — Martin holds the top seed in the Chase with four wins to his record, but he hit several challenges early in the season that dug the No. 5 Kellogg’s team into a significant hole. With consecutive engine failures at California and Las Vegas and a 31st-place finish at Atlanta, Martin was 34th in the standings after just four races. A sixth-place finish at Bristol in March — his first top 10 of the season — began the steep climb back into contention. But it was his strong run at Phoenix, where he led 157 of 312 laps en route to his first win with the team, that Martin began picking up steam.
“I thought Phoenix was overwhelming, the realization of a dream,” Martin said. “How long it had been since a won a race. A lot of people questioned whether I would win another race. I certainly questioned it myself.”
Martin need not question himself anymore.
Kasey Kahne — Kahne has endured plenty of drama — not of his making — at the team formerly known as Evernham Motorsports. And the week leading up to the Chase was no different. After securing fifth place for the postseason, even Kahne questioned the timing of Richard Petty Motorsports’ announcing their intent to merge with Yates Racing earlier in the week. “Why are we doing this now?” Kahne asked.
But the success of RPM’s flagship team is a testament to Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis for not allowing the outside distractions to permeate the No. 9 Dodge team.
“I’ve had to learn to tune things out, and it’s just not me, it’s our entire team,” Kahne said. “Kenny Francis and this whole 9 team, when the pressure is on, they’re really good, and when it’s time to tune things out, whatever it may be since I’ve been here, they’ve been able to do that. We just go on with our races and our days and figure out how to be the best that we can. It’s tough to do, but we’ve done a good job at it and I think that we can do that for (10) more races this year.”
From a performance standpoint, Kahne’s win last weekend at Atlanta vaulted the team closer to the Chase. But Francis said it was actually the team’s run at Darlington that turned the season around. Francis opted to change the philosophy of the car’s setups and Kahne led 45 laps before an incident relegated the No. 9 to 31st, two laps down. Kahne battled back to a 23rd-place finish.
Brian Vickers — The defining moment for the Red Bull team was regaining ground last week at Atlanta after a repairing a broken axle on pit road.
Coincidentally, the very crew men that replaced the axle and allowed Vickers to remain on the lead lap and salvage a seventh-place finish (six positions ahead of rival Kyle Busch) executed the same maneuver several years ago while working at MB2 Motorsports for Red Bull Racing President Jay Frye.
Vickers entered Richmond with a 17-point advantage over Busch, and when the race ended maintained an eight-point lead — the closest decision since the Chase began.
Carl Edwards — Edwards has led the charge for the Roush Fenway Racing contingent for most of the season. Yet in only a few races — Atlanta, Texas and Pocono — has the No. 99 Ford been a true threat for the win. Edwards, who won six races last year, has led just 159 laps in 2009.
At Chicagoland, where Roush rolled out new cars, Edwards was the only Ford to finish on the lead lap. He held on to 14th despite his choosing not to pit at the end of the race. Edwards is the reason the No. 99 remains in contention. But don’t be surprised if Jack Roush tweaks Edwards’ pit crew for the Chase.
Ryan Newman — Whatever could go wrong for the No. 39 Army Chevrolet at Daytona did. After three wrecked race cars, Newman left Speedweeks 36th in points. He was 32nd in points after Atlanta, where he finished 22nd — his best finish in the first four races.
Newman and the U.S. Army crew were in desperate need of a week off, which they used to regroup after a tough start. During that break, Tony Stewart served not only as team owner, but also cheerleader to the No. 39 squad. And when Newman arrived at Bristol, he qualified on the front row, led 25 laps and finished seventh. The following week, Newman finished sixth at Martinsville and jumped from 27th to 18th in the standings. He would break into the Chase Zone following Richmond in May and never looked back.
Juan Pablo Montoya — After three years on the Cup tour, Montoya has come a long way in mastering stock cars. However, his naivete with tire management was exposed at Dover, where he qualified third, took the lead on Lap 2 and led three laps before running his tires off. He dropped like a rock and finished 30th.
In the next 14 events, Montoya finished worse than 12th just twice while maintaining his strategy to average a 10th- to 12th-place showing.
Greg Biffle — Like his Roush Fenway teammate Edwards, Biffle hasn’t had the necessary equipment to be a weekly challenger. What kept the No. 16 in the Chase Zone for 19 of 25 weeks was his pit crew. Biffle had just a one-point lead over teammate Matt Kenseth entering Richmond.
“Those guys are the reason we are sitting here tonight,” Biffle said after the Richmond race. “I gained every single time I came down pit road.”