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Sturbin: Meet The Chase Class Of 2009

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
The field of the 2009 Chase celebrated together after last Saturday's race in Richmond. They'll compete against each other beginning Sunday at New Hamphshire.

The field of the 2009 Chase celebrated together after last Saturday's race in Richmond. They'll compete against each other beginning Sunday at New Hamphshire.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Tony Stewart insists that any of the 12 drivers eligible for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup is a bona fide title contender heading into New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

But better check the points ladder after the last hauler exits Loudon, N.H., on Sunday night.

“After Loudon this weekend, this thing could be totally upside-down and you could have half the Chase field almost eliminated in one week,” said Stewart, a two-time champion of NASCAR’s premier series. “We’ve seen weird things happen, and it’s one of those deals that you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the Chase. Every year, it’s been different.”

Well, sort of. Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have collaborated to win the last three Cup championships, tying a record set by NASCAR icon Cale Yarborough from 1975-78. No Cup driver has won four consecutive championships under any scoring format, and Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut certainly appear capable of collecting more title hardware.

The 12-driver field for the sixth edition of the Chase was set after Race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night. All participants have had their point totals re-set to 5,000, with race-winners receiving 10 bonus points for each “regular-season” victory. Four-time winner Mark Martin, who is Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, will start the Sylvania 300 as the top-seed with 5,040 points. Three-time race-winners Stewart and Johnson are trailing by 10 points each. Chaser Greg Biffle, seeded 12th, is the defending champion of an event scheduled for 300 laps/317.4 miles around the relatively flat 1.058-mile oval.

Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart won his first title in 2002 under the season-long Winston Cup points format and prevailed again in 2005, second year for the 10-race Chase. Like Johnson, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and inaugural Chase champ Kurt Busch, Stewart has logged thousands of miles of title experience.

“But you could have 50 championships under your belt and still finish 12th in points,” said Stewart, who is in his first year as team-owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing. “Just knowing how to deal with the pressure is probably the biggest thing. Knowing what’s going to happen and what positions you’re going to be in when those last two or three weeks come up – if you’re one of those guys that still has a legitimate shot of winning the championship – that’s the kind of experience you’ll want to have gone through.”

That said, Stewart avoided anointing a favorite _ especially himself. “According to the odds, we’ve got a one-in-12 shot,” said Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS. “We’ve just got to work from there. There are so many variables that go on each week that you can’t control. There’s more variables that you can’t control than you can. You’ve just got to hope every lap that everything goes alright. Now that we’re locked into that position, we’ve got 10 weeks to go out there and make that become a reality again.”

2009 SPRINT CUP CHASERS by seedings:


Points: 5,040

Car: No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Fourth/Fourth (2004, 2005)

Comment: Seems we’ve been writing about Martin being “the best driver never to have won the Sprint Cup”  since his fourth and most recent runnerup points finish in 2002. The current, 50-year-old Martin – thoroughly rejuvenated by his association with Rick Hendrick’s organization – is a real-deal title contender based upon the four victories that have earned him the stand-alone No. 1 seeding.


Points: 5,030

Car: No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Crew Chief: Darien Grubb

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Fifth/First (2005)

Comment:  The first-year team-owner/driver exceeded expectations with three victories and his lead atop the points standings at the close of the 26-race “regular season.” Cup champion in 2002 and ‘05, many observers feel Smoke has the best chance of ending Jimmie Johnson’s three-year championship run. Also, Stewart could become the first owner/driver to win the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.


Points: 5,030

Car: No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Sixth/First (2006, 2007, 2008)

Comment: While the law of averages strongly suggests  that Johnson can’t win an unprecedented four consecutive Cup titles , the cold/hard stats shout otherwise. Johnson, only driver to qualify for all six Chase editions, has scored top-five finishes in over half of the previous 50 playoff races. J.J. leads in wins (14), top-fives (26), top-10s (36), average finish (8.7) and laps-led (2,204).You got a problem with all that?


Points: 5,020

Car: No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota Camry

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Crew Chief: Mike Ford

Chase Appearance/Best Finish:  Fourth/Third (2006)

Comment: Enters postseason riding the momentum of his victory in Race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway, the first time Hamlin has won on his home track. That win boosted Hamlin’s Chase seeding to fourth, his reward for compiling some impressive stats during the 10-event “Race to the Chase.” Hamlin earned both of his wins and logged a series-high 1,482 points over that 10-race span.


Points:  5,020

Car: No. 9 Budweiser Dodge Charger

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

Crew Chief: Kenny Francis

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Second/Eighth (2006)

Comment:  NASCAR was Kahne’s playground in 2006, when he won a series-high six races and bagged a career-high six poles and first Chase berth. But an eighth-place overall result in Chase III was followed by wasted seasons in 2007-08 as the organization founded by Ray Evernham unraveled. Next year will bring more adjustments, as Kasey will be driving a Ford…the result of an impending merger with Yates Racing.


Points: 5,010

Car: No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Yellow Ribbon Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Chase Appearance/Best Finish:  Fifth/Second (2007)

Comment:  Sir Jeff scored two of his three career Chase wins in 2007, when he recorded eight top-10s in the final 10 races to finish 77 points behind Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. A four-time champion, Gordon has finished in the top-five in points in four of the past seven seasons.  An elusive fifth title would place him within day-dreaming distance of seven-time champs Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.


Points: 5,010

Car: No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger

Team: Penske Racing

Crew Chief: Pat Tryson

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Fourth/First (2004)

Comment: The inaugural Chase champion is well-aware of the importance of capitalizing on Round 1 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Busch led off the ’04 Chase with an upset win on the 1.058-mile oval and maintained enough juice to hold off runnerup Jimmie Johnson by eight points. Meanwhile, the recently announced post-season departure of crew chief Pat Tryson…shouldn’t present a distraction.


Points: 5,010

Car:  No. 83 Red Bull Toyota Camry

Team: Red Bull Racing Team

Crew Chief: Ryan Pemberton

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: First/TBD

Comment:  Nobody raced harder into the Chase than Vickers, whose seventh-place finish at Richmond International Raceway in Race No. 26 allowed him to secure the 12th and final spot. Vickers edged Kyle Busch, last year’s No. 1 Chase seed, by eight points. Vickers earned the most points over the final eight events in the “Race to the Chase,” with seven top-10s and a win at Michigan International Speedway.


Points: 5,000

Car: No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Crew Chief: Bob Osborne

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Fourth/Second (2008)

Comment: First-in-class among the Ford drivers, Cousin Carl will be hard-pressed to repeat his runnerup performance from last season thanks to a broken right foot. Recall that Edwards won three races, and logged a total of eight top-10 results, during the 10-race playoff in 2008. Even more telling for the Ford Car of Today camp is the fact Edwards is 0-for-2009 after winning a series-high nine events in ’08.


Points: 5,000

Car: No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Crew Chief: Tony Gibson

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Third/Sixth (2005)

Comment: Returns to the postseason as teammate of owner/driver Tony Stewart after a deflating, three-year meltdown at Penske Racing. It’s difficult to believe that Newman’s most recent victory was in the 2008 season-opening Daytona 500, and that one of the sport’s top qualifiers has only two wins since 2005. On the upside, two of his 13 career Cup wins have come at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.


Point: 5,000

Car: No. 42 Target Chevrolet Impala SS

Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

Crew Chief: Brian Pattie

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: First/ TBD

Comment: Colombian Juan Pablo, first foreign-born driver to qualify for the Chase, basically flogged himself at Richmond International Raceway for taking a conservative approach into the playoffs. OK, let’s see the JPM who was unafraid to bang open wheels with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen or anyone with the onions to take away the line during his star-crossed Formula One tenure.


Points: 5,000

Car:  No. 16 3M Ford Fusion

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Crew Chief: Greg Erwin

Chase Appearance/Best Finish: Third/Second (2005)

Comment: Became the first driver to win the opening two races in the Chase last year, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway. While the Biff-Man failed to maintain that pace, he wound up a still-solid third. Biffle, whose six Chase victories have him tied for second overall with Carl Edwards, is out to avoid his first winless season since landing a fulltime ride in 2003.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
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