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Race Day: Some Chase Words

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
It all began in South Florida five years ago. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

It all began in South Florida five years ago. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Interestingly, the very existence of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship has come under scrutiny at times in recent weeks. It seems that not everybody loves a winner or, at least, a winning organization.

Very little of that scrutiny emanated from the Sprint Cup garages at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, however. Competitors, some of whom were the loudest critics of the playoff system when it was introduced for the 2004 season, now sound as thought they can’t live without it.

Here is what a select group of drivers this weekend had to say about the Chase:

Ryan Newman: “The Chase is the reward after getting to the Chase. I think that there’s way more emotions, there’s way more stress levels or sense of stress in those five races getting up to Richmond. The Chase itself to me is rewarding. It’s time to sit down and relax and at the same time work hard but be grateful for what you’ve accomplished and at the same time use that positive attitude to build on those last 10 races. To me it more, especially in our position this year, those previous five before the Chase to get everything right. I think a lot of times teams think of that in the Chase but to me it’s a time to go out and have fun and use your experiences that you’ve gained throughout the year to go back to the tracks a second time and put it to them.”

Greg Biffle: “Being in the Chase is just super-important for a team because, number one, you kind of become of an icon in the sport. The Chase cars are viewed as ‘made the playoffs,’ so it’s certainly important, mentally, emotionally for a team, and for success to make the Chase each year. Then you view each week as ‘What do we have to do to win here?’ or ‘Catch the next guy in front of us?’ and I guess you do the same if you’re not in the Chase, but it sort of just takes the wind out of your sails when you’re not. With 10 races to go, you’re really looking forward to next year instead the next 10 with an opportunity to try and close in on that top five in points or whatever it might be, whatever reachable. It’s super-important to make it. That definitely is the highlight of our season, running well enough all season to be in it.”

Kurt Busch: “This Chase format for us feels like you’re in a play-off atmosphere where every position counts, every decision that you make seems to be magnified.  And every time that you feel like you leave something out on the track, you’re clenching your fists a little tighter saying, ‘Man, maybe I gave up something too much today.’  And when you win, it’s that much sweeter when you come out on top and beat the other Chase guys.  All of us have a shot at the championship when Loudon fires up and then we go on through the Chase.  Week after week, you hope you are gaining points and staying in the mix and you want to go to Homestead mathematically eligible to have a shot at the Championship.”

Jimmie Johnson: (Well, take a guess)

Race Day facts

What: Ford 400
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla.
When: Sunday, 3:15 p.m. ET
TV: ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 1.5-mile oval
Race distance: 267 laps/400.5 miles
Estimated pit window: 50-55 laps
2008 winner: Carl Edwards
2008 polesitter: Jamie McMurray
Today’s polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

Points leaders: 1. Jimmie Johnson, 6,492; 2. Mark Martin, 6,384; 3. Jeff Gordon, 6,323; 4. Kurt Busch, 6,281; 5. Tony Stewart, 6,207; 6. Juan Pablo Montoya, 6,203; 7. Greg Biffle, 6,171; 8. Denny Hamlin, 6,140; 9. Ryan Newman, 6,081; 10. Kasey Kahne, 6,016; 11. Carl Edwards, 5,972; 12. Brian Vickers, 5,826.

Hanging on

Hope springs eternal. Well, for one more day, at least.

Mark Martin may trail Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by 108 points entering Sunday’s Ford 400 finale but it’s not in his DNA to go down without putting every ounce of his skill and determination into the fight.

And who knows — witness the recent Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots game — what could happen.

If anyone can stage a comeback, it’s the veteran Martin who, on nine occasions, has gained more than 108 points on Johnson. It happened most recently two weeks ago in Texas, when Martin’s fourth-place finish coupled with Johnson’s accident-troubled 38th, resulted in a net gain of 111 points.

Regardless of how matters shake out, “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done this season,” said Martin, only the second NASCAR Sprint Cup driver past the age of 50 to win five times in a season.

Trivia time

Name the 10 drivers in the first Chase.

Chasing another Earnhardt

There’s one very important spot up for grabs this week — 35th place –- and with it goes a guaranteed starting position in the 2010 Daytona 500.

The No. 34 team owned by Teresa Earnhardt currently ranks 35th with 2,667 points. The only team with a shot at taking the position is the No. 82 of Dietrich Mateschitz.

Mateschitz and driver Scott Speed, however, trail by 114 points. Speed, who has a single top five in his rookie season, will at least have to match his best performance of the year (fifth) to overcome the deficit.

Kid’s stuff

Points remain to be totaled but Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota) is the prohibitive favorite to claim 2009 Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors.

Logano, who grabbed his 25th rookie of the race award at Phoenix, leads rivals Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) and Max Papis (No. 13 GEICO Toyota) by 36 and 88 points, respectively.

Logano won in mid-summer at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Connecticut native at age 19 years, five months, 29 days would become the youngest rookie of the year in the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota) was age 20 years, six months, 13 days when he won the title in 2005.

Winning the rookie of the year title is a good indication of things to come. NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee Richard Petty won the award in 1959; David Pearson was top rookie in 1960.

Since 1979 six Raybestos Rookies of the Year have gone on to win series titles including seven-time champion and Hall of Fame Inductee Dale Earnhardt (1979) and Jeff Gordon (1993).

Big finish joints

This week’s race marks the eighth consecutive year the season has ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted the finale from 1987-2000.

In 2001, the finale was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of the 9/11 attacks. From 1974 through 1986, the season ended on the West Coast at now-shuttered tracks in Ontario and Riverside, Calif. The last time the season ended on a short track was 1970 at Langley Field Speedway in Virginia.

Milestones

A number of streaks are in jeopardy this week — none longer than Greg Biffle’s (No. 16 3 M Ford) run of six consecutive seasons with at least one victory.

Also needing a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to preserve a streak is Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet), who has victories in three consecutive seasons. A runner-up finish in Sunday’s race at Phoenix suggests the Richard Childress Racing driver might be close.

Winless in 2009 after posting victories a year ago are defending Ford 400 winner Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) and Ryan Newman (No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet).

Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) continues to chase a Coors Light Pole to extend his consecutive fast qualifying streak to six seasons.

Hendrick nears record

Based upon owner championships won, Hendrick Motorsports is the New York Yankees of NASCAR.

Drivers in Rick Hendrick-owned cars and trucks have won 11 NASCAR national series titles. Either Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin will add a record 12th championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The record currently is shared by Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing.

Four drivers — Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte and Jack Sprague — have won NASCAR national owner championships for Hendrick. Gordon, Johnson and Labonte won NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. Sprague is a three-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion.

Trivia answer

The 10 drivers in the original Chase were, in finishing order: Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Jeremy Mayfield.

Up next

Champion’s Week heads west next month with activities beginning Sunday, Nov. 29 in San Diego where the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will attend the NFL game between the hometown Chargers and the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

On Monday, it’s on to Camp Pendleton, the West Coast home of the U.S. Marines, where the champion will meet with hundreds of service personnel.

Tuesday’s activities include an appearance before fans and ticket holders at Auto Club Speedway and visits to a number of West Coast-produced television shows.

Then it’s on to Las Vegas.

Wednesday’s Chasers for Charity and Roast is a first for Champion’s Week and takes place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during afternoon and evening hours.

The awards trail begins in earnest on Thursday, Dec. 3 with such traditional activities as the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers 2009 Awards ceremony at the Venetian Hotel.

That’s followed by the popular Victory Lap, which begins at 1 p.m. and this year follows the famous Las Vegas Strip. An additional activity — After the Lap Q&A — will be held at 4:30 p.m. in the Hollywood Theater at the MGM Grand.

Wynn Las Vegas hosts the traditional Champion’s Awards Ceremony beginning at 6 p.m. Friday Dec. 4. Ceremonies will be broadcast live by SPEED 9 p.m.-1 a.m. ET with re-airs at 1-5 a.m. on Dec. 5 and 1-5 p.m. on Dec. 6.

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
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