One true groove, or more? Verdict's out
|How they can win outright|
|Kurt Busch, leader: Will win the championship if he wins the Ford 400. He can also guarantee the title if he finishes second and earns five bonus points for leading at least one lap.|
|Jimmie Johnson, trails by 18: Can win the championship if he wins the race and leads the most laps (for the maximum 190 points), and Busch finishes second without leading a lap, or finishes third but doesn't lead the most laps, or finishes fourth or lower.|
|Jeff Gordon, trails by 21: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; Busch also must finish third or lower and not lead a lap, or finish fourth or lower and lead a lap, or finish fifth or lower and lead the most laps.|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr., trails by 72: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; he also needs Busch to finish 15th or lower and not lead a lap, Johnson to finish 10th or lower and not lead a lap and Gordon to finish ninth or lower and not lead a lap.|
|Mark Martin, trails by 82 points: Can win the championship if he wins the race and accrues the maximum 10 bonus points; he also needs Busch to finish 19th or lower and not lead a lap, Johnson to finish 13th or lower and not lead a lap and Gordon to finish 12th or lower and not lead a lap. Earnhardt Jr.'s finish wouldn't matter as long as he doesn't lead a lap. If Martin wins the race and Earnhardt Jr. finishes second and leads the most laps, the two would be tied and Earnhardt Jr. would win the tiebreaker (number of '04 wins). Source: NASCAR|
But what remains debatable heading into the Nextel Cup finale Sunday is whether the track has more than one racing groove. This is important because when there's one groove, drivers race single file with little ability to pass on the track.
One groove puts the emphasis on qualifying well, starting up front and having a good pick of pit stalls to help with the vital race off pit road.
Put simply, a single groove means the title could be partly won during Friday qualifying, a day which historically has proved telling at this track.
"You'll probably see one car follow the other," said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for driver Tony Stewart, who won the first two Cup races in Miami. "It just seemed like as fast as you ran and as hard as it was to pass guys -- even when you ran them down -- that there will probably be a lot of single-file racing."
Adds Stewart: "Qualifying is what it is. It's important, but it's not the end of your weekend. (But) it does make a difference here."
The numbers prove Stewart's point. Twice this race was won from the pole. Once it was won from the outside pole. In the remaining two races here, winners came from seventh- and 13th-place starting positions.
"A lot of times numbers can be deceiving," driver Dale Jarrett said, "but those sound right. At least with the old track, that's what it was like. You had to start up front and stay up front [after leaving pit road]. Time's going to tell with the new track."
The new track supposedly features two or three grooves. Last year, the first year the track played host to Cup cars after the renovation, there was more passing than before.
However, many left with the impression that the middle groove was so much faster than the other two grooves that it had the effect of encouraging everyone to stay down the middle.
Others liked that the other grooves at least gave a driver a chance to pass.
"The track is super-fast with the progressive banking in the corners," driver Kevin Harvick said. "The cars seem to really stick in the corners, probably because the track has got a lot of grip. You can race side-by-side almost around the entire racing surface so it makes it a lot more fun for the drivers and the fans, too."
The five remaining title contenders all agree with Harvick's assessment of the racetrack. But that's not going to make Friday irrelevant to them.
"It's still easier to race from the front than from the back," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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