The Chase is on

Back in the day, the country group Sawyer Brown had a song out called “The Race is On.” It sure fits what we have going on here in NASCAR. I have to admit that the first Chase for the Sprint Cup race of 2010 was one of the most entertaining ones I have seen in quite some time. Actually it didn’t matter whether this was a Chase race or a normal race during the season, Sunday at Loudon, N.H., was a barn-burner.

It was a great race all day with a great finish as well. Your winner, Clint Bowyer, certainly was the class of the field for most of the day. While he comfortably led the race at times, boy oh boy back in the pack there was beatin’ and bangin’ going on. Actually with the way the track is laid out there in Loudon, that’s what you are going to get. It’s a very, very difficult track to race on. It’s just extremely tough to get around your competitors and not make contact.

Turn 3 is probably the toughest. When you come down the backstretch and get to Turn 3, you are actually going downhill as you enter into that corner. That downhill run is what gets those cars loose getting in there. You saw it in the Truck race as well as Sunday in the Cup race with folks getting loose in Turn 3.

That’s just the kind of racing you have in New Hampshire. It’s a 1-mile racetrack with super fast straightaways that lead to dead stops in the turns. So it’s only natural with all that stopping and starting that things get out of sync and you have problems.

Now I have never been a fan of messing with tradition and shortening races. Sunday’s race was one of the shorter ones at 300 laps. Quite honestly, that increases the intensity dramatically. You saw that intensity right at the green flag. They were three wide early trying to get past folks. You have to do that on a track like that and get past folks when they are all bunched up.

You saw it Sunday when things got strung out, then things settled down and folks were simply logging laps. You saw at the start of the race and then on restarts that it became a madhouse. Everyone’s trying to get all they can while they can. It’s time to go when you have four fresh tires and everyone is bunched up. You can’t wait and you can’t play. You have to be aggressive and take chances.

I speculated whether we would see the Chase guys play it a little conservative and let the race come to them. Probably the one guy that did that was Jeff Gordon. He didn’t take any big chances all day and came home with a sixth-place finish. It was a typical Jeff Gordon day but he was probably the only guy I saw whose car wasn’t skinned up after a hard race.

The drama at the end of the race was intense, too. Tony Stewart should have named his car Wilma, as in, “Wilma car make it to the end or run out of gas?” Unfortunately for Tony, he didn’t have enough gas and that was unfortunate. Tony and his bunch got his car dialed in late in the race and to be that close to winning and then running out of gas was heartbreaking.

You also saw Jeff Burton make a great run from the back and looked like he was going to pull out a top-five finish. Like Tony, however, he came up short and that allowed a couple other guys to move up in the finish order. That’s the gamble you take and it’s magnified even more for the guys in the Chase.

Let’s face it, that’s a huge hole that Tony has dug himself into. Year after year I talk about you really can afford one mulligan race in the Chase. Well, Tony has already used his mulligan. He can’t afford another bad race. Actually he can’t afford even a mediocre race in these last nine events. Now the upside for Tony is that his car has been much better these last few weeks than any time during the season. So he can do it, but he certainly has a lot of digging to do to get out of that huge hole.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton are in the same boat. They and Tony have some huge hurdles to overcome. The other one that I am not confident about is Jimmie Johnson, despite being 92 points back in seventh spot. He has his work cut out for him. We know he can do it. Of the ones back there, we know he is capable of doing it.

His car seems OK, but not great. Sunday you saw him start 25th and get up into the top five pretty quickly. I don’t know that he had a winning race car Sunday. The thing that is bothering me is not Jimmie. He is up on the wheel. It’s the continuing problems in the pits. They’ve had way too many issues this year. When they don’t have issues, they are slow. When they try to go fast, then they make mistakes.

The loose wheel on the No. 48 Sunday really hurt Jimmie. Lucky for him, Dover is this weekend and we know how dominant he can be there. That No. 48 team is going to have to get on a winning streak if they hope to repeat as champions.

The car that everyone needs to watch is that No. 11. It’s not the same Denny Hamlin as in the past. What happened to him Sunday would have spelled doom in previous years, but not Sunday. Denny came back and came back with a vengeance after he and Carl Edwards got together.

Denny and his crew chief, Mike Ford, seem to really be clicking together. They seem to have the confidence in each other that is so critical. Remember earlier in the year, Rick Hendrick even admitted he felt the Gibbs cars had caught and passed his Hendrick Motorsports cars.

From the start of the season, folks were pointing to the No. 11 to be the car to beat in 2010. There was a point in the year that I had my doubts. Well no more. In my mind, he is the guy to beat for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. His teammate, Kyle Busch, isn’t very far behind either. It sure looks to be a great battle between Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. Those teams look to be the contenders.

You can’t, however, overlook the great finishes by the non-Chase racers. Dale Earnhardt Jr., for instance, had a great run. His car looked strong all day long. He did some good driving, made some great passes and had great work in the pits. After the terrible way they ran at Richmond, finishing fourth Sunday at Loudon had to be just what the doctor ordered for the No. 88 team. So maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for that crowd and for once maybe there’s not a train attached to it.

Jamie McMurray had another great race, finishing third. David Reutimann finished seventh. It was good to see him up there. Ryan Newman finished eighth. Sam Hornish got a great 10th place. The man is driving for his life, driving for his job and driving for his future. I have said this before, when they give Sam a car he can drive, he gets great results. You saw that Sunday. If he can get some more finishes like that before the season ends, the future probably will look a lot brighter for Sam.

I think the most disappointing thing when you look at Sunday was the Roush Fenway cars. Just look at the finishing order, there wasn’t even a Ford in the top 10. Carl Edwards finished 11th, but he would have finished even further back if Tony and Jeff Burton hadn’t run out of fuel.

I really thought the Roush and Petty camps would run stronger Sunday based on how well Kasey Kahne ran there in the spring. Unfortunately it simply didn’t materialize. So it looks like the Fords still have some things to figure out. I think the major key will be this weekend at Dover. Roush and the Fords have always run well there. If Roush Fenway and the other Fords don’t run well this Sunday, then that’s a clear signal to me that they have some major problems to overcome.

I am looking forward to Dover because it is 400 miles of excitement. I mentioned earlier that Jimmie runs well there, but so does Kyle Busch. Will Clint Bowyer be able to keep things rolling? What about Denny? Historically, Dover hasn’t been one of Denny’s best tracks so we will have to see how that all plays out.

The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase is off to a strong start. I would love to see these last nine races be just as intense as this first one was. That would make things really unpredictable and I love unpredictable.