Chase down to just a few now

Last Thursday, Matt Kenseth said he didn’t believe the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion would have to win a race to capture the title, but he was quick to add, “It sure pays a lot of points.”

Kenseth, however, took nothing for granted. He masterfully pulled off the victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night to climb from fifth to third in the points standings and close to within seven markers of points leader and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards.

“The wins matter, obviously,” said Edwards, who hasn‘t won since the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 28 races ago. “It’s great to win, but our goal is to win the championship. We’ve won nine races in a season and not won the championship, and I’d definitely trade that for a zero or one-win season with a championship. Our goal is to win this championship.”

Considering that Hendrick Motorsports is not enjoying its best postseason and that defending champion Jimmie Johnson ended his night on the wrecker’s hook Saturday, this is the perfect opportunity for the Roush cars to pounce. Team owner Jack Roush believes this year’s Chase winner “can’t expect to get a mulligan” and recover come November.

“You’ll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race,” Roush said. “I thought that Jimmie Johnson would be a factor in it, and he’s definitely doing to have to stand in line and wait or the other folks in the top five to have problems for him to get back in it.

“He won’t race his way back in it. He won’t finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the racetrack. He’ll have to wait for them to have trouble, I think.”

Couple Roush’s comeback theories with his confidence — “In my 24 years, I’ve never had better cars for the championship stretch than we have,” he said — and it makes for a compelling argument for Edwards and Kenseth.

But not so fast, Jack. History shows that Johnson won’t go away quietly. Kevin Harvick learned to lose a championship last year, finishing only 41 points behind the five-time champion. Saturday’s runner-up, Kyle Busch, who gained four positions in the standings after finishing second, is getting hot at the right time. Streaky Tony Stewart shot out of the Chase gate with two wins, and the champ is still the only driver to win titles under the two previous point systems. And Penske Racing has both cars competing in the Chase for the first time since 2005 with Brad Keselowski proving to be the feel-good NASCAR story of the year.

So with NASCAR halfway through the Chase for the Sprint Cup, how do the top contenders stack up in the final five events?

Carl Edwards (2,203 points)

Edwards is the only driver in the Chase to survive the first five races with top-10 finishes in each. How does Edwards view his five-point advantage over Kevin Harvick?

“That’s five more spots,” Edwards said. “If we can slowly build a little bit of a lead, that’s the best thing we can do. It’s so competitive right now. Everybody is so fast that you just take everything you can get.”

But with races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway facing the points leader as the next two events, Edwards could not hide his dread. Talladega is by far his worst track, with one top-five finish and an average result of 20.9. And who could forget Edwards’ wild ride on NASCAR’s biggest oval in 2009? Martinsville has been problematic for Edwards, as well, with one top-five in 14 starts and only three laps led.

But if he can survive the next two hurdles, it could be smooth sailing for Edwards in the final three events, where he has posted six of his 19 career wins.

Kevin Harvick (2,198 points)

Harvick’s average finish in the first five races is 7.2, but he’s more consistent on the final five tracks than Edwards. Harvick and the RCR contingent thrive at Talladega.

Harvick won there last spring and has three top fives in the past three races on the 2.66-mile oval. Harvick is the last driver to win at Martinsville and has an average finish of 12.9 at Texas. While Phoenix is an entirely new track, Harvick won twice on the old configuration. Although he’s never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the season finale, it’s the track where Harvick enjoys his best average finish (7.9), with five top fives and eight top 10s in 10 starts.

Matt Kenseth (2,196 points)

Like Edwards, if Kenseth can get through Talladega and Martinsville, the final three races should be a cakewalk.

Kenseth’s worst finish of the year, 36th, came at Talladega in the spring. But he’s improved greatly on shorter flat tracks and scored his seventh top-10 at Martinsville in April. Kenseth has won at the final three tracks — Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

If the Chase comes down to Kenseth and Edwards in the end, it will be hard to pull against the No. 17 since both the driver and crew chief Jimmy Fennig both have Cup titles on their resume.

Kyle Busch (2,185 points)

Despite finishing second Saturday, Busch doesn’t feel that his Joe Gibbs Racing equipment is up to par with his fellow Chase contenders.

As talented as Busch is, there’s only so much he can overcompensate for and the postseason has never served him well. Busch has won at Talladega but wrecked there in the spring. He finished third at Martinsville in April and led 151 laps. In the final three events Busch has won only at Phoenix, which is, for all intent and purpose, a new track.

Homestead has been brutal for Busch, as his average finish is 26.3. There are still a few growing pains for the No. 18 team, and this could like be another wait-until-next-year type of season for Busch.

Tony Stewart (2,179 points)

Stewart has won two NASCAR titles, one before and one during the Chase era, just never as a driver/owner.

With all the distractions surrounding his No. 14 team, with rumors of crew chief Darian Grubb leaving at year’s end coupled with the advent of Danica Patrick’s arrival, Smoke has a lot on his plate. If anyone can juggle these, it’s Stewart.

Like Harvick, Stewart has traditionally outperformed the Roush cars at Talladega and Martinsville, both tracks where he has wins. Stewart also has wins on the final three tracks that host races this season, including two at Phoenix, where he has excelled in the past. At the recent Phoenix tire test, Stewart quickly acclimated to the new configuration. Expect him to be in the thick of competition when the tour returns there in November.

Jimmie Johnson (2,168 points)

After winning five consecutive championships, it wouldn’t be prudent to count Johnson out until he’s mathematically eliminated. In 2006, Johnson battled back from a 146-point deficit with five races to go to win the title. And under the new points system, he’s eighth in the standings, just 35 points behind Edwards with better tracks ahead for him than the driver of the No. 99 Ford.

Johnson has 13 wins at four of the next five tracks. The only venue J.J. has yet to win at is Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the last five title runs, a win wasn’t necessary. That will likely change this year.