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Minter: Mistakes Mean One And Done in Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 6 2009
Brian Vickers slid into the grass and probably out of contention at Kansas. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brian Vickers slid into the grass and probably out of contention at Kansas. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Some random observations heading into Week Four of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup:

The old saying that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch may be true for fruit, but it’s not the case when it comes to drivers in the Chase. Just ask Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne.

Kahne had one bad race, where he blew an engine at New Hampshire and finished 38th, then followed that with finishes of eighth and sixth at Dover and Kansas respectively.

Still, he’s 11th in the standings, 190 points out of first. The only way he could take the points lead this week is if the top drivers failed to enter the race at California, since the maximum number of points that can be made up in one race is 161. (A driver earns 195 points by winning and leading the most laps; last place pays 34.)

Vickers is buried in 12th place after his blown engine at Kansas, 250 back, despite so-so finishes in the first two runs.

In some cases, it appears that a blemished apple can spoil the rest of the crate as well.

Carl Edwards hasn’t been bad. His worst finish is a 17th and he also has an 11th and a 10th, but he’s in 10th place, 165 points back. He’s over the 161 mark, meaning that if he makes a run at the title he’ll need several races to catch up.

Jeff Gordon has an average finish of 7.6 in the first three Chase races, including a runner-up finish at Kansas, but he’s still in seventh, 103 points out of the lead.

“That’s what happens when you get off to the start that we did at New Hampshire, when you finish 15th and all the guys that you’re racing in the championship finish ahead of you,” Gordon said after Kansas. “Then even a day like today is not going to necessarily turn you around and all of a sudden be in the top two or three.”

The fact is that unless a lot of the current leaders have bad days, the Chase is more of a four- or five-driver contest than one among 12.

When the Chase was first conceived, the thought was that the final 10 races would allow teams outside the elite group, those that were no longer concerned about points, to gamble in the pits and on the track and go for race wins.

That hasn’t proven to be the case. In fact, teams outside the Chase have become non-factors for the most part. At New Hampshire, seven of the top 10 finishers were Chase drivers. At Dover, it was eight of 10 and last week at Kansas it was nine of 10.

Matt Kenseth, who missed the Chase for the first time ever, has been one of the lone bright spots for the non-Chasers. He finished third at Dover, but his other two finishes were outside the top 20.

If not for the strong run so far by Juan Pablo Montoya (top-four finishes in the first three races) this Chase would be a runaway for Hendrick Motorsports, which has four drivers in the top seven in the standings, including leader Mark Martin and runner-up Jimmie Johnson. Kansas winner Tony Stewart uses Hendrick engines and chassis and the teams share information.

The race to the Chase seems to appeal to TV viewers more than the start of the Chase itself.

Ratings for the races at Michigan, Bristol Atlanta and Richmond were up over last year, but the three Chase races have seen viewership numbers drop off from last year. Overnight ratings from the Kansas race were down 16 percent.

But points leader Mark Martin cautions that it would be a mistake for race fans to change channels at this point of the season.

“The one thing that is cool about all this points stuff [is] you always want to talk about the points stuff, but the races decide that,” he said. “We have got a lot of racing to go, and a lot of excitement, and I think that everybody needs to stay in tuned to these races.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 6 2009
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