You have to start fast and win races to be a Chase champion, right?

Updated: September 19, 2008, 1:30 PM ET

AP Photo/Terry Renna

Tony Stewart proved in 2005 that you don't have to win a Chase race to win a Cup championship.

Start Your Engines

Half the battle for the 2008 Sprint Cup is over now that the Chase field is set. Sure, there will be 43 cars Sunday at Loudon, N.H., for the Sylvania 300 (2 p.m. ET, ABC), but only 12 will matter. Condition yourself now if you're, say, a diehard Kasey Kahne or David Ragan fan -- unless they win in the next 10 races, you'll barely know that last week's bubble boys are on the track.

You know how it will start: Kyle Busch is in the lead by virtue of his eight regular-season wins, with top contenders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson 30 and 40 points behind, respectively. Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are essentially tied for last with their combined zero wins and have a big hill to climb -- already giving away 80 points to Busch -- to get in the championship conversation.

They're all after the same gaudy piece of hardware (the Sprint Cup, to be polite, has a ways to go to become Stanley Cup-iconic), and there isn't necessarily a blueprint to getting it. To listen to the pundits this week is to hear all the clichés about winning, being consistent, starting well and other banalities being the road to the title, but not all are true all of the time.

Let's deconstruct the theories of how to win a Chase, from the four previous Chase databases:

•  You have to win. Nah. Stewart won his Chase-era title in 2005 without a win in the 10 playoff races. He started the playoff atop the points -- awarded a five-point lead on second-place Biffle (five-point increments separated the rest of the 10-man field) -- and was able to hold the top spot on the strength of five top-5s and three runner-up finishes.

Jimmie Johnson won four of the final six races in the first Chase in 2004, but he couldn't get past Kurt Busch, who won the first race at New Hampshire and then top-10'd the field to death over the next nine.

•  You have to be strong every week. Johnson said that with the way the 99 (Edwards) and 18 (Kyle Busch) have been performing, "you can't show up and run at 80 percent … you have to show up and bring your A-game each week."

Well, sure. One would never plan on anything less. But a 10-race playoff is fairly long and lends itself to allowing one throwaway race. Kurt Busch had one bad day in his title a run, a blown-engine 42nd at Atlanta. Johnson started his 2006 championship run with a 39th at Loudon.

"That would be pretty cool to have one race where you could just say 'that one didn't matter' because, like it or not, this is a sport where you can run really well but one bad thing can hurt you so much in the points," Edwards said.

But one bad outing is easily canceled out by nine strong performances. It's the two or more bad races in a Chase that quickly eliminates contenders.

•  You have to start quickly. That's nice, but drivers have rebounded from slow starts like baseball teams in 0-2 playoff holes. Johnson's 2006 is again the example. His first top-10 wasn't until the fifth Chase race at Charlotte. He just kicked it into high gear at that point, with five consecutive second-or-better finishes.

•  Anyone can win. A diehard Gordon or Smoke fan would certainly preach that today, but a rags-to-riches Chase-winning story hasn't been written yet. Johnson started last year's Chase second in points and his 2006 Chase in first, as did Stewart in 2005.

Kurt Busch started the 2004 Chase in seventh place, so his title required some leapfrogging. But that was the 10-man era not seeded by wins, so he was only 30 points back. A driver coming from the back of this year's field will have to make up a bigger gap.

•  It will come down to the wire. Maybe. Busch and Johnson were separated by 18 points going into Homestead in 2004 (Johnson finished second and Busch fifth in the race, enough for Busch to win the title), but that was the last time the top two drivers were separated by fewer than 50 points on the eve of the finale.

Of course, no Chase has ever seen the top three in points come into the playoff on a collective nine-race win streak. So perhaps the champion will have to get off to a good start, win multiple times and sweat the finale.

It's still unpredictable.

Rocket Man

Jimmie Johnson: Vegas odds have JJ as the second choice for the title, with Kyle Busch on top. Busch had to get the chalk by default, leading the points and owning the most wins, but given the choice between the kid and the two-time champion, who do you have? If you believe it's a momentum game, as most in the garage do, the guy coming into the Chase with two wins looks awfully good.

"I have confidence in what my abilities are and what my team is capable of and the packages we have put together in the last five or six months, short track, big track, all of it," the Johnson said.

The Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevy team lives for the next 10 weeks, whereas the majority of the Chasers hope for a good time. Big difference.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

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Slippery Slope

Kenseth

Matt Kenseth: Speaking of momentum going into the Chase, there's the Johnson way, and then there's having your worst finish in four months to chew on going to New Hampshire. That's Kenseth after a 39th at Richmond.

"I was pretty much in the way of everybody all day. I was pretty much a rolling chicane after David [Ragan] spun in front of me, and then as soon as he spun, I spun and didn't really have anywhere to go," said the Roush Fenway Ford veteran. "Glad we're in, but if we operate like this, we won't do anything in it. Everybody that's in wants to run for the championship, and we have a lot of improvement to do that."

Going The Wrong Way

Gordon

Robby Gordon: Outside of being the dreaded 36th in owners points, finishing 33rd or worse in six of his past seven starts -- including a 42nd at Richmond -- and finding out last week he's being sued by Gillett Evernham Motorsports for breaking a tentative agreement to sell his operation, Gordon's having a ball these days. Yeesh.

What's the worst part of all that? Forget the lawsuit. It's probably the owners' points deal. Remember, Gordon's the lone wolf of the garage as an owner/driver, and if he doesn't get off the bubble by season's end he'll be looking at having to qualify for the first five races of 2009, including the Daytona 500. Very difficult scenario for an independent always scratching for sponsor dollars.

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Martin

Mark Martin: Please don't let this be too much of a tease for next year. Martin can keep up this pace as a full-timer at Hendrick, right?

The veteran of 700-plus Cup starts showed up at Richmond for his first Cup race in three weeks and finished fifth, his third consecutive top-10 and ninth in 18 races. By comparison, Chase driver Greg Biffle has 11 top-10s in all 26 races, and seven of the Chasers can't match Martin's average finish of 13.4. Martin definitely hasn't sustained the wear and tear of those guys on his part-time schedule this season, but then again, the man is 49 years old.