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Williams: The Favorite In The Chase Is…Nobody

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 11 2011

The field for the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship was finalized on Saturday night in Richmond. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

RICHMOND, Va. – Nine months ago Kevin Harvick predicted his Richard Childress Racing team would unseat five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson from his throne, but after Saturday night’s Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway there was no clear-cut favorite in the title Chase.

Harvick’s 0.139-second victory over Carl Edwards on the 0.75-mile track gave him four for the season and placed him in a tie for first with Kyle Busch, also with four wins, when the points were reset for the beginning of the Chase next weekend at Chicago. Harvick, however, didn’t perform well enough during the summer months to be considered the Chase favorite. In fact, Harvick’s crew chief Gil Martin said they’d “run like crap” during the summer.

“We got off our game trying to do some things to just win races,” Martin said. “I think that taught us a valuable lesson through the summer. Going into Atlanta we had a huge team meeting on the Sunday after Bristol because we had such a horrendous Bristol race for the whole company.

“We went back and looked at the races that we felt like we were the fastest at the beginning of the year

Kevin Harvick heads to the Chase with the most momentum. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

and we put that stuff in at Atlanta. We ran in the top five all day. We came here and did the things we traditionally do and had a solid weekend from the time the car unloaded off the lift gate. It’s been stressful the last month, but I think as you see the last two weeks it’s paid off. I’ve been there for 10 years and for the last two or three weeks, this company has worked closer together with everybody and each individual team than we ever have.”

It’s solid, consistent teamwork that has paid dividends for those in the Chase and given them the confidence they can unseat Johnson.

Brad Keselowski is making the Chase in only his second full season in the Cup series. The hottest driver in August, he never finished lower than third that month and visited victory lane twice. For the season, he has three wins.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase for the first time since 2006.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon appears to have his best shot at a championship in several years. He’s seeded third with three victories, while teammate Johnson enters the Chase with only one win. In addition to Johnson, Edwards, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin each have one victory.

Only Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. enter the title showdown without a win. However, five of the Chase drivers have won a total of 13 Cup championships and Stewart possesses two of them.

In the team department, Hendrick Motorsports has three teams in the Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing two, RCR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. slipped into the Chase just a little worse for wear. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

one and Roush Fenway Racing two. Penske Racing has both of its cars in the Chase for the first time since 2005. Stewart-Haas Racing has both of its teams in the Chase for the second time in three years.

“I’m viewing it like a 1-year-old that got his first box of crayons – happy and amazed to have them,” Keselowski responded when asked how he would handle the Chase pressures. “Everything is fresh, new, and a lot of positive momentum. No matter what happens in the Chase, it’s still an honor to be in it. That doesn’t mean I’m making excuses if we don’t run well by no means. But I’m just going to thoroughly enjoy it and approach it with a fairly open mind and try not to box myself into saying we’ve got to do this or got to do that. I’m going to run hard each and every week, do the best I can, and it’ll either come together or it won’t.”

It’s a different story for Kurt Busch and Johnson, whose constant run-ins could derail their championship hopes. During Saturday night’s race, Busch tagged Johnson and spun him into the wall. Later in the race, Johnson spun Busch and himself. Johnson’s Chevrolet hit the wall and went to the garage for repairs, while Busch continued. Busch finished fifth, Johnson 31st.

“For 398 laps we had a solid car and one of those laps I got into Turn 1 too hot and got into the 48 [Johnson],” said Busch, who got into an angry confrontation with a reporter in the media center. “The other lap was when the 48 retaliated and spun us around.”

Johnson said he and Busch spoke on the stage during post-race activities and he hoped everything was behind them.

“The incidents that have happened have been accidental in the past when he was in the 2 car,” Johnson said. “He knows that and moving forward I’m just not going to let people run our race car over. There’s been a lot of contact going on and that’s why I retaliated tonight. It was a good time to do it. We had eight, nine years before that where everything was fine. It’s possible and I think it’s in both of our best interests to get it behind us and go forward.”

Johnson realizes this could be the year his championship streak is broken.

“I think it’s going to be a great Chase for the fans, exciting ones for the drivers this year,” Johnson said. “I think it’s real difficult to pick a clear favorite. You look at the momentum that each driver really … there’s probably seven or eight drivers that have had momentum at some point that are getting warm at the right time.”

And if you don’t believe it, just watch them walk and listen to them talk. They’re overflowing with confidence and the belief they can rob Johnson of his sixth consecutive championship.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 11 2011
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