- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Finally, after 26 races, thousands of laps and all the hype anyone could stand, the Chase is on.
Ten drivers. Ten races. One champion.
And if the next 10 races unfold as they did last year, NASCAR officials can dream of a scenario in which the Nextel Cup champion isn't determined until the final lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway in late November.
On the surface, it does sound like a dream. After all, before the Chase's creation, there were close championship battles now and then, but rare were the times when more than two drivers had championship aspirations heading into the final race.
Last year, Kurt Busch's title wasn't secure until the final lap. When all was said and done, Busch edged Jimmie Johnson by eight points and Jeff Gordon by just 16. There's no guarantee a similar drama will unfold this time around; but if two or three drivers can put hot streaks together over the next 10 weeks, then it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
At the start of the year, Johnson and Greg Biffle had to be considered the championship contenders, but the last part of the season has led to the emergence of Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. Both are former champions, which could -- in the eyes of some -- give them an edge during the Chase.
Then again, not having a championship to his credit didn't stop Busch from winning the Chase last year.
In other words, anything is possible over the next 10 races. So the best way to approach things is with an open mind. Sit back and enjoy the races, but not before taking a look at the 10 championship contenders, based on how they finished the regular season.
The 2002 champion's incendiary streak that started at Michigan in June has cooled somewhat, but he's still a fixture in the top 10 these days. And Busch showed last year that that's how you win the Chase. Stewart, though, isn't the type of driver who sits around the top 10 if there's any possibility of moving to the front of the pack. Another dominating effort by the July winner at New Hampshire could let everyone know he's not planning on being denied this time around.
Strengths: Good on all types of tracks, his crew has a championship under its belt. Stewart also has plenty of momentum, and that can make all the difference.
Weaknesses: One of the few things that could derail Stewart is if his legendary temper pays a visit as it has in the past.
A fixture in the top five of the standings since winning in Fontana, Calif., in the second week of the season, Biffle has five wins in '05. He's strongest on the intermediate tracks, which is a plus -- as Martinsville, Va., is the only short track remaining on the schedule.
Strengths: Biffle has won championships in the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series, so he knows how to get the job done. Of course, those titles were won by remaining strong over an entire schedule. Veteran crew chief Doug Richert also has championship experience, having turned the trick with Dale Earnhardt in 1980.
Weaknesses: A lack of Chase experience could leave Biffle and his crew at a bit of a disadvantage.
The 1989 Winston Cup champion, Wallace looks to be drinking champagne at Homestead as part of his "Last Call." Somehow, you get the feeling he'll gladly replace his beer sponsor for the bubbly if that occurs. Although Wallace has yet to win this season, he has been a master of consistency, scoring 21 top-15 finishes in the first 26 races.
Strengths: Wallace certainly is determined to close out his career on a high note, so his focus is unlikely to be an issue. Sure, he has a lot on his plate, but look for him to find a way to push it aside in an effort to go out on top.
Weaknesses: Consistency will take a driver only so far in the Chase, unless that consistency leaves him in the top seven or eight each week. Wallace likely needs to find a way to Victory Lane if he's going to win it all.
The leader of the point standings after 16 of the 26 races, Johnson has slipped a bit as the season has gone on. Granted, his fall wasn't as precipitous as teammate Jeff Gordon's collapse, but his wins came early in the year, at Las Vegas and Charlotte, N.C.
Strengths: Crew chief Chad Knaus always seems to find a way to get his team to rise to the occasion. Look for more of the same here. When Johnson appeared out of it last fall, he went on a roll that nearly brought him the title.
Weaknesses: Johnson can't afford to stumble early in the Chase as he did a year ago. It'll be hard to win four of the final 10 races for a second straight year, so a little consistency can't hurt. His team shares a shop with Gordon, and he has to hope the impact of Gordon's new crew chief proves a positive and not a distraction.
The defending champion gained a spot in points by winning last weekend in Richmond, Va. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but it gained him five points over teammate Mark Martin when the standings were reset. After winning the title by just eight points last year, Busch knows every point matters.
Strengths: Crew chief Jimmy Fennig is legendary for his focus and finds ways to keep Busch from imploding when things look bleak. Not even watching the car lose a right-front tire at Homestead last year could ruffle Fennig, and that counts for a lot in postseason play.
Weaknesses: So far, questions about Busch's future after this season haven't detracted from his team. With Busch hoping to move to Penske Racing South next year, that speculation eventually could knock his team off course, though.
Near misses and Martin seem to go hand in hand when it comes to Cup championships. Arguably the best driver the sport has seen not to win the title, Martin appears to have another shot at it next year unless owner Chip Ganassi releases Jamie McMurray from his contract. Either way, Martin, who has yet to win a points race this season, enters the Chase as the sentimental favorite.
Strengths: His crew is a mirror image of Martin -- not flashy, but good all the way around. Undoubtedly the most driven driver in the Chase, Martin will get every bit of speed out of his car imaginable.
Weaknesses: As is the case with Wallace, the lack of wins could prove problematic over a 10-race run. And for whatever reason, Lady Luck never seems to smile on Martin -- witness the late-race crash he couldn't avoid at Charlotte last fall. Will fate finally smile on the skillful Martin, or spite him once again?
This time, Mayfield didn't have to sweat his berth in the Chase to the very last lap at Richmond. A fuel-mileage gamble that paid off handsomely with a win at Michigan in August went a long way toward securing his spot in the field. Victim of a wreck in the first Chase race last year, he had a chance to learn how to approach things this year.
Strengths: Mayfield and crew chief Slugger Labbe have meshed quickly and should continue to grow stronger together the rest of the season. And owner Ray Evernham might have a trick or two up his sleeve to spark even more performance from the team.
Weaknesses: Mayfield's Dodges haven't been as quick as the cars of some of the drivers he'll be battling for the title. A gamble or two can overcome that now and then, but it might be too much of a burden with the title on the line.
The biggest surprise among the 10 drivers going for the crown, he's also the most enthusiastic. Edwards opened plenty of eyes by winning his first Busch and Cup races on the same weekend back in March, then added another Cup win at Pocono Raceway in June. He has managed to juggle full schedules in both series with poise well beyond his years.
Strengths: Edwards' boundless energy rubs off on his crew, helping it through rough spots. In his first full Cup season, he has shown he should only get better with experience, though he's already a threat more often than not.
Weaknesses: Trying to run both schedules the rest of the way could take its toll. And although Edwards is enthusiastic, his inexperience also can lead to nervousness, and there's no time for panic from here on out.
The one driver no one counted on seeing in the Chase based on where he stood in the standings a few months ago. Other drivers have won more races, but there arguably has been no more impressive performance than Kenseth's run back into contention. Sure, he has only one win, a dominant effort in Bristol, Tenn., but he could have won at Chicago and Fontana and can't be overlooked.
Strengths: Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser work together as well as any combination in the garage. Kenseth's pit crew also might be the best in the sport, and speedy pit stops can help a driver gain one or two spots, and the points that go with them. If last year is any indication, that could make the difference.
Weaknesses: Last year, teams that rallied to make the Chase found themselves running out of gas down the stretch. If that happens to Kenseth's, it will be understandable after a run for the ages just to get here.
The last driver to secure a berth in the field, Newman needs to catch lightning in a bottle. A torrid stretch run when he won eight races in 2003 indicates that anything's possible with Newman. But thus far in '05, he has yet to show the form of a champion. Then again, maybe he and teammate Wallace will hit on something and vault to the top; though given the lack of communication between them, that appears doubtful.
Strengths: Crew chief Matt Borland is one of the best out there, and if there's a way to find another level for this team, look for him to get the job done. Newman's a great qualifier, and winning a number of poles and picking up five bonus points for leading the first lap of a race certainly wouldn't hurt matters, either.
Weaknesses: Like his teammate, Newman has yet to win this season. Something seems to be missing, and it might be that this team lacks the ingredients necessary to claim a championship this year.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.