Cup's second season within season is here
Part II of NASCAR's 58th season began this week, which means the jockeying for postseason glory is under way.
Ever since NASCAR instituted its current "playoff" system, whereby the last 10 races pit the top 10 drivers against one another for the title, the season has broken down into three sections: The first 16 races in which teams work on chemistry, setups and improvement; the next 10 in which the teams vie for the top 10; and the final 10 in which the champion is determined.
"You could say it's three seasons, now," said four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who has yet to win a title under the new format. "Some people say it's two. [Certainly], everybody is just working to be in that top 10 for after Richmond right now, just trying to make it into that final 10 with a shot at winning a championship."
With 10 races to go before the 10-race, 10-driver Chase field is set, the tangle for a berth could be tighter than ever. Here's a look at the contenders:
Only Johnson and Kenseth can move into experimental mode, trying out new strategies in preparation for the final 10 events of the year. Others have reason to feel comfortable, but no one else is a lock.
Indeed, for Johnson the biggest concern is whether he's peaked too early. The past two years Johnson has made the Chase, but his experience in it has gotten off to a slow start.
"I think it does happen in our sport," Johnson said of peaking too early. "Our season is so long. The crazy thing is that none of us can plan on when we're going to peak. So you just kind of roll the dice. We've been known to peak early and then again late. But it's been a little too late. Hopefully we can adjust that around a little bit and peak at the right time."
Kahne has two wins and four top-10s in his last five races, setting a blistering pace up the charts from eighth to third. Martin, though a mainstay among the top five in points, hasn't had the burst of success Kahne has enjoyed. After starting the season with a lowest finish of 13th in eight events, Martin has thrice finished outside the top 15 and twice come home worse than 25th. He's fallen from second to fifth in the standings, but doesn't appear to be in any real danger to take a nosedive out of the golden field.
Earnhardt's recent record fits somewhere between Kahne's and Martin's. After winning at Richmond in May, Junior posted three top-10s before finishing 26th last week at Sonoma's road course and falling one notch from fourth to fifth. Still, he's on par to safely make the Chase with the rest of the group.
Consistency On His Side
Jeff Burton (71 points behind Junior).
The gap between Burton and Junior suggests Burton is on a slightly lower tier, in a slightly less firm position to make the Chase. But to say that would be to ignore what has made this the most exciting season for Burton fans since he finished in third in 2000 -- his consistency. Burton has 12 top-15 finishes in 16 events this year. He has 10 top-10s. And he's put together some of his stronger performances of late, suggesting the team is only now starting to really gel.
"We've done a nice job to this point in some areas and there's also a lot of areas we need to improve in," Burton said, "so we're not really paying a whole lot of attention to what we've done. We're trying real hard to pay attention to what we need to do in the future. There's great examples of people coming here and being very high in points and not getting into the Chase, and there's examples of people not being [high] in the points that get in the Chase. • That's what we're focusing on. We're working hard to be better. We're not just sitting still."
Need To Rev it Up
Stewart, Gordon and Biffle aren't sitting still either -- each is in the middle of spells that will make or break their season. In Stewart's case, it's been a run of sour luck that threatens to endanger the two-time champ's repeat title hopes. For Gordon and Biffle, it's all about keeping up recent strong runs in hopes of masking not-too-distant poor fortunes.
"We need a good week next week," Stewart said of this Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. "The good thing is that the morale of the team is up. This team has battled adversity so many times that it takes a lot to beat this team down. A lot of what we've seen is a reflection of my attitude. If I'm not down about what's happening, then the team doesn't get down about it."
For Gordon, seemingly everything is up from last season's disappointing 11th-place finish. Gordon was well outside the top 10 after the Richmond cut-off race and missed the Chase. This year, he's got a shot, but he needs to find speed and lose trouble. Last weekend's win at Sonoma helps, pulling him up three spots from 11th to eighth in the standings. The fact that he's had much success at upcoming tracks Daytona, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen bodes well for the No. 24, too.
"We need to carry that energy and momentum into Daytona and beyond," Gordon said. "We want to keep building momentum as we approach the Chase. If we're able to secure a spot in the Chase, then you want it to carry over to the final 10 races."
Nobody's got more momentum right now than Biffle, who went from an early-season concern to now needing to rev it up only to solidify what seems like a Chase-bound season. Biffle has ridden seven consecutive top-10 finishes to vault from 23rd in the rankings after stumbling out of the gates this year to his current slot at ninth.
A group of three drivers sit within immediate striking distance, though, which means Biffle can celebrate his feat once he's qualified for the Chase -- not now.
"We just need to stay out of trouble this week," he said. "We've made up a lot of ground in the points these last few weeks and if we can just keep up this string of top-10 finishes, we'll be in good shape."
Stewart, Gordon and Biffle could all easily be thrown into this category, too -- only recent showings of upsurge for Gordon and Biffle keep them a half-step ahead and, for Stewart, it's the seemingly eternal promise of a late-season surge. Whether that proves true or not is something Harvick, Hamlin and Kyle Busch will have a lot of control over.
The trio will be fighting each other for the final spot, but 10 races is enough to change the entire face of the bottom half of the Chase field.
Harvick was up to fifth 10 races into this season; he's fallen to 10th. Kyle Busch has experienced a similar downward push. After climbing to fifth six events into the year and still sitting pretty at seventh 11 races into the season, he's down to 12th and has been shut out of the top 10 his last three races. Hamlin's momentum has been working the other way -- upward. He was 16th 10 races into the year and made a brief appearance among the top 10 three weeks ago after winning at Pocono. In 11th place, the biggest question for him is whether the rookie will be able to handle the pressure of a tight points battle.
These are the drivers who are feeling the heat, said Kyle Busch.
"We need a good points day [at Daytona]," he said. "Right now, we're in 12th after a few rough races and we have no time to waste in getting back in the top 10. We set out this year to make the Chase and that hasn't changed. We've tried the ride-around-in-the-back strategy, but when it was time to go race, we got caught up in a big wreck immediately. At Talladega, Lap 9, we were taken five-wide and that didn't work out so good for us either. I don't know what it's going to take for me to have a good restrictor-plate finish, but I can only hope it will be in the Pepsi 400 this weekend."
In Shouting Distance
The crowd near 10th place isn't discouraging some contenders who have ground to make up. They don't see why one or two more can't join the party. Edwards, who finished tied in points with Biffle for second last season, got off to a rough start this year. But since Roush Racing revisited the crew chief shuffle -- a move that five years ago sparked a resurgence in Martin's career and sent Kurt Busch on his way to a championship in 2004 -- Edwards has been on a furious climb. Of this group of hopefuls, he has the most momentum and, he said, the most desire.
"We are so close at getting ourselves into the top 10 and honestly, that is our No. 1 goal right now," said Edwards, who was 19th 10 races ago and now sits in 13th after posting six top-10 finishes. "We don't have many races left, so we have to do everything we can week in and week out until the Chase ends. Another good week in Daytona is exactly what the Office Depot team needs to move ourselves a bit closer."
He'll be fighting with the drivers sitting in and around 10th, as well as Kurt Busch, Mears, McMurray and Newman -- each of whom has shown flashes this season of Chase capability. Busch and Newman have been mainstays among the top 10 the past few seasons, too.
"Starting the season off like that [a 38th-place finish at Daytona and a 37th three races later] really put us in a hole as far as the points went," said Kurt Busch. "But we're coming back, scratching and clawing to get all the points we can and giving it our best shot to get back up there and make the Chase."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.