Chasers won't hold anything back in Loudon
Week 1 of the playoffs is upon us, and with 50 points separating first from 10th, everyone in the top 10 has a shot.
Thing is, seven of the current contenders have been through this before. They came into last year's playoffs with a shot, and yet only one of them won. The rest aren't impressed with having made the Chase. They're headed to Loudon, N.H., hoping to rack up points and, if possible, win the race.
Week 1 is a statement race, though, so the pursuit for the checkered could get a bit more frenzied.
"Now, we have a legitimate chance of winning our first championship," Ryan Newman said. "Kurt [Busch] proved last year that it's all about consistency, so that's what we're aiming for. A few wins can't hurt though, and that's what we'll be aiming for this weekend."
He'll have a lot to contend with -- like a guy who tends to get hot this time of year, another who's been smoking the competition the last few races and a couple others who have owned this track of late.
Busch has notched two victories in his last seven races, and that's bad news for all other Chase contenders. If there's one thing Busch is, it's streaky.
Busch used the final 10 races of the 2002 season to dart from 12th to third behind eight top-10 finishes, including three victories. In 2004, after beginning the final 10-race span with a victory, Busch posted five more top-five finishes -- and three other top-10s -- en route to the title.
This year, he enters the final 10-race shootout on the heels of a victory in Richmond, Va., and heads to Loudon with another checkered flag on his mind.
"Last year," he said, "Loudon was instrumental in our 10-race stretch to the championship, and that's exactly what we're looking to do again."
Riding the wave
Matt Kenseth is without a doubt the hottest driver on the Nextel Cup circuit. In his past four races, he's got four top-seven finishes, including a victory, a second-place finish and a third-place finish. In that span, he's moved from 16th in the standings to narrowly making the Chase.
The season, which seemed lost when Kenseth was ranked 24th 14 races into the year, has come alive and the 2003 champion could be the most dangerous participant in the Chase.
"This team really has a tremendous amount of momentum right now," he said. "We reached our goal of making it into the Chase and now our focus will be working towards another championship. I feel like the way our cars are running right now and the way this team is working together, we have a legitimate shot at the championship."
History on their side
Tony Stewart, Busch and Jimmie Johnson have won the last five races at New Hampshire International Speedway, making each of them threats. Of the trio, Stewart has the most recent victory -- coming in the summer. Busch has the last fall victory in Loudon, though, as well as the momentum from Richmond.
Johnson has not won at New Hampshire since 2003.
"Obviously, I like it because I've had success there," Stewart said of New Hampshire. "I enjoy racing there, even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."
Cause for concern
Despite his perch at fourth in the standings, just 15 points out of first, Johnson has struggled of late. The normally consistent racer, who was consistent again for most of this year and held the top spot until Stewart's midseason surge, has made a habit out of stumbling down the stretch since the playoff format took shape.
Last season, Johnson was first in the standings through 22 races, but a string of poor finishes and DNFs relegated him to a fifth-place points position by the time the Chase started. At that point, it was too late to turn the season around, and a couple of sub-30 finishes knocked him out of contention.
This year, Johnson enters the Chase without a top 10 in his last three races. In fact, he's got only two in the last eight.
"If you're hitting your stride, you're all about the Chase starting," Johnson said. "But if you're downhill fighting your way up, you'd want a couple of weeks before the Chase starts so you can sort out your own stuff."
Just because Jeff Gordon didn't make the Chase doesn't mean he's going anywhere -- he still gets to race the final 10 events. And he'll do so with something he's never had going for him before -- no concern for points. Gordon can race for the win on every lap, and if he wrecks trying, he's in no worse position than he was before.
After all, securing 11th place is no consolation for him. He can do without the million-dollar bonus, and getting on stage for finishing 11th is more of an insult to him than an honor.
"I don't really care where we end up in the standings, we just need to get prepared for next year," Gordon said. "We need to get things turned around so that we don't put ourselves in the same situation.
"This season has been disappointing, but I look forward to the challenge of getting things turned around and battling for wins the remainder of the season. We want to get some momentum on our side and carry it over to next year."
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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