Hood: The Chase To Be The Chase Favorite Is Wide Open
By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
Hampton, Ga. – Following Sunday night’s Emory Healthcare 500, what’s clear is there is no clear-cut favorite to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy following this year’s season finale in Homestead, Fla.
Tony Stewart added his name to a crowed list of Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders by leading 176 and putting a whipping on the 43-car Atlanta field.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t count out four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who pulled out of mini-slump Sunday evening by running at or near the front of the field and posting a third-place finish.
Johnson, who is currently seventh in points, will roll into Loudon, N.H. no worse than second in the standings.
But Kevin Harvick, who will win NASCAR’s unofficial regular season championship next weekend in Richmond, ran well in Atlanta until he locked up the tires while trying to dive onto pit road.
The rare miscue resulted in a blown left-front tire on Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet.
Since Daytona in July, no one has been more consistent than Carl Edwards, the runner-up finisher in Atlanta.
A blown engine sunk Denny Hamlin to 10th in the title standings. But Hamlin’s five wins means he’ll climb back to the top of the standings after Richmond.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon is winless this season, but always a threat to drive his No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane.
And the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, are prone to getting on rolls at a moment’s notice.
Even Johnson, who has five victories this season, recognized the fact he’ll have his hands full in his bid to etch his name in the record books as a five-time champion.
“There’s a lot of teams coming together right now, and I think the 12 drivers in the Chase, and the organizations represented in the Chase, are all pretty strong,” Johnson said. “I still think we are trying to catch up a little bit.
“Some guys might be a little further ahead. We all have our complaints here and there. But I think you’re going to have a really good Chase.”
Stewart, the points leader following Richmond last season, snapped a 31-race losing streak with his win in Atlanta.
“I don’t know if we have peaked. How do you when you’ve peaked? That’s the thing,” Stewart said. “The thing I guess I’ve been real excited about, especially the last two months, we’ve kind of been silent every weekend and we’re gaining on it.
“It’s been a lot of little steps in the last 10 to 12 races, and nobody’s really noticed it. But we’ve noticed it internally.
“And it’s a much better feeling right now this time of year than it was a year ago. We were on such a high leading the points and had won races already. At this stage, we were pointing downhill. And this year, I feel like we’re pointing uphill.”
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