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Minter: Two Races In, The Chase Field Is Thinning Rapidly

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009
The Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is beginning to come into focus. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is beginning to come into focus. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

The 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup is just two races old, but it’s beginning to look like the 12-driver field is rapidly being thinned to only a handful of legitimate title contenders.

Points leader Mark Martin and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson are rapidly putting the balance of the Chase field in their rear-view mirrors.

Jeff Gordon, who looked solid throughout the regular season, is in eighth place, 122 points out of the lead already. Tony Stewart, the regular season “champion” is fifth, 106 points back.

Kasey Kahne, who suffered a blown engine in the opener at New Hampshire, is 189 back, more than he can make up in a single race even if he wins and Johnson and Martin finish in the back.

Gordon, a four-time champ under the old format, talked about his title hopes on this week’s NASCAR teleconference, acknowledging that the new championship formula hasn’t worked out in his favor.

“The Chase has changed things,” he said. “This format I think doesn’t suit my style quite as well as the old one.”

He said that the 10 tracks in the Chase, which were pretty much the 10 that were at the bottom of the schedule when the Chase was started, aren t necessarily his best tracks.

“If I could take 10 races from the schedule and put my best 10 races together, I would throw out a couple of the ones that are in the Chase,” he said. “I feel like you ask Jimmie Johnson that question, he will say that those are pretty much, other than maybe Talladega, those are 10 of his,  or nine of his, best tracks.

“I think that that certainly plays a role. You have to be good at all of the tracks to win the championship.”

Three of the eight remaining tracks are statistically some of Gordon’s worst. Of his 82 career Cup wins, only one has come at Texas Motor Speedway and one at Phoenix International Raceway. He has none at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He also pointed out that Johnson, and Denny Hamlin, are now beating him regularly at Martinsville Speedway, another Chase track where Gordon once was the dominant driver.

“I don’t feel we have had quite the edge we have had,” he said. “So we are working hard to go back to Martinsville this next race and get that victory. I think that’s a race we definitely have highlighted on the schedule in the final 10 that we can gain some points.”

The new points formula may be working against Gordon, who won his last title in 2001, but that doesn’t dampen his desire to win with it.

“I don’t want to make excuses; I want to win the Sprint Cup Championship under this format, and I would be so proud and honored to do it, because I know just how tough and challenging this has been on us.”

David Ragan, who had high hopes this year after barely missing the cut for the Chase in 2008, is buried in 30th place in the standings this fall.

He said this week that he’s expecting the also-ran group of which he’s now a reluctant member to expand by a few more after this week’s race at Kansas Speedway.

He said the he and the other 30 drivers not in the Cha se are not in that different a situation from drivers like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards, who made the cut this year but dropped far out of the running after the first two races.

“There are five or six guys that realistically have a shot to win the championship in the Chase, and there’s a few guys that after the next race, they’re going to be out of the Chase championship, so they might as well start trying some things and looking forward to next year,” he said. “Because if you don’t win the championship, or are in the top-two or –three in points, it’s really all the same after that.

“I think that anybody that’s in the top-15 to top-20 or the guy that finishes 43rd in points, he’s going to want to continue to try some things out of the box that will help him out and get a jumpstart for next year.”

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009
One Comment

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  • Leo says:

    Rick: I’ve been reading your article about the chase contenders thinning out after only 2 races. I noticed that you mention several drivers; Johnson, Gordon, Khane, Hamlin, Martin, even Ragan but no mention at all about JUAN PABLO MONTOYA. Is there a special reason you did not included him in this list. He is 3rd as or right now, and he’s been driving pretty darn good. Would you hate to see him win the championship???. I never watched NASCAR races before because they are too darn long and is boring to watch cars going in circles, but now I follow JPM although I must confess I still don’t watch the whole race I think he’s been a slow learner but it is sad that you for whatever reason don’t recognize; or even acknowledge his improvement. Keep up the “good” work.

    Leo Rodriguez