- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The field is set. The chasing is about to begin. So with the 10 Nextel Cup Chasers spending Thursday unleashing a media blitz on New York City -- they did a fashion show, no joking, on 'Live with Regis and Kelly' -- before heading to New Hampshire, what can one expect over the next 10 weeks?
Truthfully, if we could answer that we'd be off making a fortune in Las Vegas. That said, there are a number of semi-educated guesses one can make about the 10 teams fighting for NASCAR's inaugural Nextel Cup.
The first rule is not to write anyone off. Sure it might seem crazy to predict that Jeremy Mayfield will win the title -- but what chance did anyone give the Florida Marlins last fall?
At this point, conventional wisdom goes out the window. A driver can seemingly have things well in hand, only to get caught up in a wreck not of his own making and have the title ripped from his grasp.
In the past, one or two bad races wouldn't kill a driver's title hopes, but that was over 36 races. Now that the championship's a 10-race shootout, one finish of 35th or worse might not doom a driver's chances, but more than one bad run will undoubtedly do the trick.
So while there's no accounting for what bad luck a driver might endure, here's a look at NASCAR's 10 finalists in the order in which they finished the regular season.
Thankfully, unlike the Miss America Pageant, there's no swimsuit competition, as the talent score of the drivers and teams will go a long way in determining this winner.
How do you bet against a four-time champion, even one who's endured a few rough spots this season? While it's hard to wonder if some teams can flip the switch and immediately get back into high gear, there's every indication that Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis have their fingers on the switch and will turn up the intensity starting Friday morning.
Some may argue that if Gordon wins three or four more titles under this system that it's not the same as Dale Earnhardt's seven championships, but that's an argument for another day. For now, Gordon's just setting his sights on title No. 5.
And he's not all that worried that one bad race will ruin the odds of that happening.
"I personally think that 10 races is more than you think," Gordon says. "I don't know if we, as a team, know any other way to race [than going all out]. If you're racing in the old points system, then you'd start to change how you approach races. If you were behind a lot, you'd start taking more risks trying to gain those points you need. But the way this system is, I think we just go out there and race the same way we've been racing all year long, which is basically to win. But if you don't have the car to win, you get the best possible finish you can. This team is not going to do any different."
While you feel confident Gordon's team has another gear left to grab, the question is whether or not his teammate can do the same. After all, several engine failures and a wreck at Richmond have ruined his team's momentum and knocked him out of first.
While the five-point disadvantage is nothing, it's more of a mental issue, though Johnson is confident the team can return to the form that saw it dominate for weeks on end. Still, he wishes it hadn't come to this point.
"We do everything we can every week to perform. I think at times we haven't had the performance mechanically underneath the car," Johnson says. "We've also had some troubles here with the engines and that's nothing that anybody can control. It's definitely allowed the gap to close. But we're in a sport where you have to be on the aggressive side.
"You have to be pushing forward to try to advance your race cars. And you can't sit still. We've been trying to make our cars better. The Evernham cars have been extremely strong. Mark Martin has been on a tear. If we sit still, we will be a 10th or 15th-place car. We had the magic at the beginning of the year and through the middle. Right now, we're strong, but we're not a dominant car. We're trying to advance our program. You stub your toes along the way. That's just part of it. Hopefully, we'll have everything in line for these final 10 races."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After starting the season with a rush, Earnhardt Jr. showed the type of consistent inconsistency that might make him more of a long shot for the title than one might expect from a driver who has spent all but one week of the season among the top three in points.
Junior's struggles at California, Michigan and Chicago have him worried about the races at Kansas and Homestead. If he struggles in those two events, he realizes the title might well go to someone else. Still, Junior's been strong at a number of the remaining tracks. If the team gets on a roll, it could easily capture the confidence that's been elusive at times this season.
"If you look back over the last three or four years, we finish better at the end of the season," Junior says. "We do. We have a history of running better [starting] at the last third of the season point. We had an average finish last year of 11th over the last 15 races. I feel pretty good about it. I think we're going to a couple of tracks we run good at. We're going to test real hard at four other racetracks. If we get through Kansas and Homestead with good finishes, those are the two tracks that are going to make it or break it for our championship hopes."
A study by Atlanta Motor Speedway says that Stewart will win the title if he closes out the season the way he's run down the stretch in past years. That's all well and good, but Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing team hasn't shown that championship form the past few weeks.
And anyone who knows Stewart knows he wasn't just riding along waiting for the Chase to begin. Stewart attacks every race with a vengeance, something that could be beneficial down the stretch. Stewart, though, can only do what his car will allow.
"We're missing something in our program. We don't know what it is," Stewart says. "We've been testing a lot. We went to Milwaukee and tested that. We're trying to find what the variable is in the equation that we need. We're certainly trying to find it right now. We've got a great group of guys at Joe Gibbs Racing and everybody on the Home Depot team. They're going to work as hard as they can to figure out what that variable is to get us running again."
Stewart believes one bad race will be enough to give the title to someone else.
"You're just not going to be able to have a bad night," Stewart says. "You look at the competition in this series and you look at the guys that made the top 10, these are guys that are very capable of putting together strings of top five finishes for 16 weeks at a time."
The defending champion will shock no one if his quiet consistency is exactly what it takes to win the title under this format, just as he did over the course of the entire 2003 campaign. After two wins in the first three races, Kenseth's been steady but hardly spectacular.
He also had seven test sessions remaining entering the Chase and with Robbie Reiser calling the shots, it would be stupid to dismiss Kenseth's chances.
"It's been kind of a weird year, you know, everybody hasn't really worried about the points every week, the top few guys, so that's been sort of different," Kenseth says. "Everybody stayed kind of bunched up all year anyway. I'm happy we're down to 10 weeks to go. It's been a long summer, and I'm glad that we're into the playoff deal and glad that we're only 30 points behind or whatever it is. I wish we were closer than that, but glad it's closed back up and hopefully we can not make mistakes, have a good start and have a chance at the championship."
If enthusiasm alone could win the championship, it would be hard to beat Sadler and crew chief Todd Parrott. Those factors alone, though, won't do it, but in conjunction with fast race cars anything's possible. And Sadler's Robert Yates Racing Ford has been plenty fast of late.
Parrott's won a championship, but Sadler must manage his emotions and not let the pressure get to him. He's quite confident things are falling in place for his team.
"I can't wait to get this playoff system started," Sadler says. "My pit crew's as good as anybody on pit road. My crew chief is the winningest one in the garage. He's won a championship a few years ago. We're looking at it like we're the favorite going into this thing. We've got some good cars lined up for it. We've been very consistent over the last few months and I think we got a great chance to win this championship."
Busch showed in 2002 he can close a season out in style. Now, it's a question of whether he can do it again with everything on the line. This team has had its share of rough patches this season, so it remains to be seen just what Busch can accomplish down the stretch.
"We've got our things on the plate, now it's a matter of executing the proper way and making sure that we don't focus on the wrong things," Busch says of a number of upcoming test sessions. "We have a fresh slate to work off of. We know that we can run strong at a group of racetracks, whether it's eight out of 10 or 10 out of 10, it's just a matter of putting everything into place and not slipping up."
With five top-fives in the past seven races, Martin's arguably the hottest driver entering the Chase. Whether his Roush Racing team can maintain momentum is the big question. If the team takes even a minute to exhale, the momentum could be gone, but Martin's focus might be enough to finally lead him to a championship.
"We have a lot of good racetracks coming up where we can contend to win," Martin says. "And regardless, we're going to go out and win us some more races here, and that's what's really special -- making the Chase, number one, and, number two, winning races. We did one of those, 'Let's go win some races and worry about the points when they stack up [deals].'"
Definitely the long shot of the bunch if you look at the fact that he didn't get in until taking the checkered flag at Richmond. Then again, driving for Ray Evernham -- who led Gordon to three championships -- it wouldn't be wise to rule out Mayfield. He closed last season with a flourish, while battling to save his job, and a similar effort this year might just shock some people.
"I think we've got a huge advantage over the rest of them guys because we're in as the underdog and we like that," Mayfield says. "We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we finish ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, anywhere, we have nothing to lose. To be in that situation, we can gain experience of being in the championship hunt, gain experience of winning one race, now we're trying to win more. We're going to run as hard as we can possibly run for 10 weeks, whatever we've got to do. It's going to be from the time it goes green until the checkered. I know everybody says that and they're going to be doing the same, but a lot of guys are going to be points' racing also, and we're not going to be doing that."
After an eight-win season in 2003, many picked Newman as the pre-season favorite this year. Things, though, haven't gone according to plan and Newman didn't clinch a spot in the chase until Richmond.
Whether or not his team can rekindle that championship form over the final 10 races remains to be seen.
"We won the battle, but we haven't won the war," Newman says of making the Chase. "We'll get our guns polished up for the last 10 races and do what we have to do as a team to stay focused and take the right race cars to the right racetracks and make the right calls. The driver will try not to make any mistakes and make sure we don't have any DNF's, engine failures and mechanical problems and go from there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
See why Elliott Sadler is calling himself the favorite and who one study predicts will win Nextel Cup's Chase.