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Race Day: Chase Is Becoming Championship Stare-Down

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 17 2009
Juan Pablo Montoya will take to the track at Lowe's Motor Speedway tonight with a very clean 2009 Chase resume.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Juan Pablo Montoya will take to the track at Lowe's Motor Speedway tonight with a very clean 2009 Chase resume. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Concord, N.C. – The 2009 Chase seems to be becoming a stare-down.

The drivers who remain in realistic contention appear to be waiting to see if the others will blink. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya and are all averaging top-five finishes through the first four races.

Like, 3.5 finishes.

Between rain showers Thursday at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, site of tonight’s NASCAR Banking 500, which is the fifth race of the Chase, drivers talked about the staring contest.

Select drivers were asked if the leaders of the playoff could keep up the pace, and they said:

Kurt Busch: “It seems as if they’re not going to back down.  It seems like they can go out there and run top three every race because it’s like they’re just in that different of a league.  I mentioned the ‘David vs. Goliath’ scenario, it sometimes feels like that.  Then there’s moments where we’re hanging right with them and then at the end of the day, we finish eighth and they finish 1-2-3.  It’s like, ‘Whoa, what happened’.  I think they can sustain it, but it’s tough.”

Tony Stewart: “I would about guarantee one of the three will. It’s hard to think that after four races when you’ve already got three of those guys that have made it that far somebody of those three won’t go ahead and finish it that way. That’s what makes this Chase cool.”

Jeff Gordon: “So, what you really want to know is whether or not I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. The only chance we have in the championship is for that average obviously to change. Those three guys have been on a tear, they’ve been consistent and very competitive and leading laps and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that. We’ve been making a strong comeback, but it’s certainly not going to be enough unless we win the next six races or something to be able to overcome not only the deficit we had going in because of the wins that they had versus ours, as well as that 15th and 6th place finish that started off the Chase.”

Fast Facts

The Race: NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America

The Place: Lowe’s Motor Speedway(1.5-mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, Oct. 17

The Time: 7:25 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 501 miles//334 laps

TV: ABC, 7 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2008 Winner: Jeff Burton

2008 Pole winner: None (weather)

2009 Pole winner: Jimmie Johnson

In a nutshell

When tonight’s NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America is complete, it will mark the halfway point of the 2009 Chase.

Through the first four races of the Chase, the top three drivers in the point standings –Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin (No. 5 Pop-Tarts/CARQUEST Chevrolet) and Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Lysol Chevrolet) have all brought their “A” game.

Martin trails Johnson by 12 points and Montoya is 58 points back. Montoya is the only driver to record a top-five finish in each of the four Chase races.

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet) has taken advantage of some key strategy the past two weeks to stay in the championship hunt. A timely two-tire pit stop helped him win at Kansas two weeks ago and his team overcame a pit road speeding penalty to fight back from a lap down and finish fifth at Auto Club Speedway last Sunday. The two-time series champion heads into this weekend fourth in points. Stewart is 84 points out of first.

Jeff Gordon continues to inch his way up the point standings. The four-time series champion finished second in California last Sunday and moved up two spots to fifth. He now sits 105 points behind teammate Johnson.

Trivia Question:

Which of the 25 nominees for the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame won the most races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway? (Answer below)

Turf  warfare

Of the 12 Chase drivers, only five have won series points races at Lowe’s. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon lead the way with five wins each. Mark Martin is next with four victories, followed by Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) with three. Tony Stewart has won once at Lowe’s.

That means that seven Chase drivers will be gunning for their first win at Lowe’s this Saturday night. That in itself should make the competition and intrigue even more compelling.

The remainder of Saturday’s field has had solid success at Lowe’s. Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) is the defending race winner and a three-time victor there. Former series champion Bill Elliott (No. 21 Warriors in Pink Powered by Ford Ford) is entered in this week’s event and has won twice at Lowe’s, as has 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte (No. 96 ASK.com/Search for the Cure Ford Fusion). Terry Labonte (No. 08 EM Motorsports Toyota), another former series champion, has one victory at LMS, and is likewise entered this week. Other former winners at Lowe’s include 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 CARHARTT Ford); Jamie McMurray (No. 26 Jeremiah Weed Ford); and Casey Mears (No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet) – all with one win each.

And I Quote:

“There is a huge desire to win that first race. I’m as hungry as an Ethiopian; they still aren’t getting fed are they?”

– Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman

Milestones

Jeff Burton will be making his 850th career NASCAR start in Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Lowe’s, driving the No. 29 Holiday Inn/Holiday Inn Express Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Since his NASCAR debut at Martinsville Speedway on March 13, 1988, Burton has made 541 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, 304 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts and four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts.

Burton has claimed 21 victories in NASCAR’s premier circuit and that ties him with Bobby Labonte, Benny Parsons and Jack Smith for 28th on the all-time series wins list.  Over the course of his 849 NASCAR starts, Burton has racked up 48 wins, 17 poles, 209 top-five and 372 top-10 finishes. He has finished in the top 10 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings in eight of the 15 years he has run the series full time.

“It’s hard to imagine I’ll be making my 850th NASCAR start,” Burton said. “I’m not one to count how many starts I have made but I can certainly say that I have a lot more starts in my future. Competing in NASCAR’s top levels of racing is something I have dreamed of since I was five years old.

“Thirty-seven years later, I still have a passion for what I do and I look forward to capturing more trophies and, hopefully, a championship along the way.”

AJ Allmendinger (No. 44 Dassault Systemes Dodge) is set to make his 75th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start Saturday night at Lowe’s.

Trivia answer:

It’s a tie and a trick question. Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each won six races at Lowe’s as drivers. But, Rick Hendrick has won 15 times as a car-owner.

Up Next: Martinsville Speedway

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup  heads to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 25 for the Tums Fast Relief 500 (ABC, 1 p.m.)

For the first time in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history, all fans attending the event will serve as ‘Grand Marshals’ for the race. It’s certainly a “back to basics” approach at one of NASCAR’s deep-rooted traditional race tracks.

Jimmie Johnson is the defending race winner. He ranks second among active drivers with six wins there and has won five of the past six races there, including this year’s spring event.

Other multiple Martinsville winners include Mark Martin (2) and Tony Stewart (2). Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota) are the other Chase drivers to win at Martinsville, once each.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 17 2009
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