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Woody: The Chase – And The Pressure – Is On

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 15 2010

Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray are two great stories this season but will not be Chase stories.

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

In the NFL there are two types of teams, and I don’t mean running and passing.

I mean the ones that make the playoffs and the ones that don’t.

That’s the standard by which a season is measured in the NFL: making the playoffs. Getting in makes the season a success. Not getting in means the season is a flop.

That’s become the benchmark in NASCAR as well.

The 10-race Chase for the Championship kicks off Sunday at New Hampshire Speedway with 12 drivers in contention. They are the dozen still standing after a grueling 26-race marathon that began way back in February at Daytona.

Each of them breathed a sign of relief once their place the Chase was secured. They made it. No matter what happens the rest of they way – even if the fizzle in the Chase – they can always say they were championship contenders in 2010.

The rest of the field can’t say the same thing. They’re fighting for crumbs and leftovers. They are championship spectators.

But I remember the theory of my old sports editor: The most compelling stories often come from the loser’s lockerroom. I think that’s true to some extent in the Chase.

I’ve always maintained that the greatest pressure is not on the title contenders, but rather on the drivers who didn’t make it. All that’s left for them is pride and performance, but shouldn’t that be motivation enough?

They can take pride in trying to win a race and salvage something from a frustrating season, while hoping an improved performance will carry into next season.

The two most interesting non-Chasers to watch in coming weeks will be Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Nobody went into the season with higher expectations and finished with lower results.

For Earnhardt this was supposed to be the Comback Season, the year when things would finally fall into place and he would start living up to his name and his press clippings. But it didn’t happen for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. He was seldom in contention, and as the jockeying for the Chase heated up Junior faded down the stretch.

The same thing happened to Martin. After last year’s amazing season left him second in the standings, he was bubbling with optimism and eager to get back on the track. But his performance dropped off, and now not only will he not win that elusive first championship, he won’t even get a chance to make a run at it.

It will be interesting to see the response of Earnhardt and Martin and several other good drivers whose Chase dream withered and died. Will they clamp their jaw, hitch up their britches, and try their best on every lap in every race? Or will they be content to just run out the clock on a disappointing season?

We’ll soon see.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 15 2010
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