- John Schwarb
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START YOUR ENGINES
Depending on how you like your NASCAR championship battles, this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup is shaping up to be either a classic or somewhat of a letdown.
At this point in all three previous Chases, five drivers have remained in the hunt. After the seventh playoff race at Atlanta last season, four drivers were within 84 points of leader (but not eventual champion) Matt Kenseth. In 2005, Tony Stewart and four others were bunched within 107 points with three races to go, and 2004's homestretch had Kurt Busch in the lead and four others up to 98 points back.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Tony Stewart: When he won the fifth Chase race at Charlotte to widen his points lead to 198 over fourth-place Stewart, Jeff Gordon refused to rule him out. "I don't care, until he's mathematically out of it, that guy is a threat, a major threat," Gordon said.
With seven Chase races in the books, Stewart still isn't mathematically out, but he's not a threat to win his second title in three yeas. Finishing 30th at Atlanta took care of that, as Stewart battled a loose car all day and ended six laps down.
GOING THE WRONG WAY
David Ragan: It's not certain whether he is really out of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race (conduct points are included in the final judging, but not among the countless stats NASCAR shares with the media), but on track the Roush Fenway driver is making matters hard on himself.
Ragan finished 33rd at Atlanta, nine laps down after a midrace accident in the No. 6 Ford. That was one spot better than rookie leader Juan Pablo Montoya, but at 171 points back of the Colombian with three races to go, Ragan is running out of time.
SHOWING SOME LOVE FOR
Reed Sorenson: We can only imagine how much friendly needling Sorenson has to put up with over his pink Dodge, but funny how that works sometimes. With days like Sunday at Atlanta, maybe he should stay pink in 2008. The Peachtree City, Ga., native has four top-10s this year and half have come at the hometown track, including a career-high third in the Pep Boys Auto 500. Sorenson was the only non-Chase driver in the top eight at Atlanta.
Though practically invisible with Target Ganassi Racing this season, given the year-long attention to Juan Pablo Montoya and recent hype over Dario Franchitti, Sorenson has quietly been respectable. After finishing 24th in his rookie season last year, Sorenson is 22nd and has an outside shot at cracking the top 20.
This Chase has not been such a free-for-all, with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on a four-race win streak (two each) that has pushed them well ahead of the midpack Chasers. The fifth-place driver today is Tony Stewart, and at 322 points back, he will only be a spoiler.
But the title hunt can still be more than a teammates' match race if Gordon and Johnson slip a bit this week at Fort Worth in the Dickies 500 (3 p.m. ET, ABC) and one driver finds the top form he had earlier in the Chase.
In other words, It's all on Clint Bowyer.
The second-year Richard Childress Racing driver was seeded at the bottom of the 12-man Chase field by virtue of a winless regular season, but won the first race at New Hampshire and was second two weeks later at Kansas to put himself firmly in the championship discussion, in third place. Since his home-state race, he has finished no worse than 11th and has added another second (Charlotte), but behind the torrid Hendrick pace he has slipped to 111 points back of leader Gordon and 102 behind Johnson. Still in third, but with work to do.
"What we have to do is keep digging," Bowyer said after a sixth-place day at Atlanta. "We can't give up, we didn't give up [Sunday] and we won't give up."
Nor should he as the Chase turns to Texas Motor Speedway, one of the rare tracks where Gordon and Johnson do not have their names all over the winners' log. Neither has won on the high-banked 1.5-mile oval.
Johnson's Texas history is nothing poor, with six top-10s in eight starts, but he did crash out in 38th place in the spring race. Gordon was fourth in the spring and ninth in last year's Dickies 500, but his 15.8 average finish ranks Texas among his least-successful tracks.
"I've always loved the facility, but it's been hit-or-miss for us," Gordon said. "We've been close to victory the past couple of times, but for whatever crazy reason -- whether it's an electrical problem while leading or me smacking the wall off Turn 4 while leading -- we just haven't won."
Bowyer actually has won at Texas -- in the Craftsman Truck Series last year. Hey, at least it's something to build on while trying to make this Chase a three-man fight.
Jimmie Johnson: Atlanta wasn't Martinsville, where Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon teamed to lead 315 of 506 laps and finish 1-3. On the bullring, both Chevys were strong and could have won. On the intermediate Atlanta oval, Gordon didn't have a winning car and Johnson didn't really either, but when Denny Hamlin came up lame on a restart with nine laps remaining, opportunity arrived for the No. 48.
"We struggled [Sunday], and it seems when we were struggling, the 24 was running well and then it kind of flipped at the end," Johnson said after closing the points gap to nine behind Gordon. "We didn't have the best of days. As the race went on, we got much stronger. [Crew chief Chad Knaus] was making a lot of great adjustments on the car. I think the first three or four adjustments we were trying to find direction with the car and what would wake it up, and then Chad got on to what was working for the car and bringing the comfort for me to drive it and we improved the car a lot throughout the event."
Those closing laps were the only ones Johnson led in his second consecutive victory and eighth of the season.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clint Bowyer has been flying under the radar ever since his Chase-opening win at New Hampshire. If Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson stumble down the stretch, keep an eye on the 07, writes John Schwarb.