No such thing as an easy week

Originally Published: September 25, 2005
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

The concrete bit several Chase contenders, and once more, Dover Downs International Speedway has shaken things up. Week 2 of the Chase for the Nextel Cup is in the rearview, and the state of the title hunt afterward? Six racers separated by 23 points.

Every week the race contenders, as well they should be, seem to be the Chase contenders. The result is a frantic pace that has the top six under tremendous pressure to continue to amass top fives and top 10s. That's fast become the key to the 2005 championship, and every contender is willing to admit the pressure's on.

"There's very little room for error," Dodge driver Ryan Newman said.

"It's going to be like that in a 10-race battle," Chevy racer and points leader Jimmie Johnson said. "You've got to believe that anybody is a threat. We've had some guys have some bad luck and slip back some. If anybody can make it clean -- I don't know who it will be, I hope it's us -- if anybody can make it clean and have a clean race car and not have a DNF and not finishing in 30th, they'll probably be the champion."

Right now, Johnson and Newman seem like the most likely to finish such a clean 10-race span, each with a victory and a top 10 in their first two playoff events. Still, no racer is out of the hunt, and most have been lying quiet, racking up top fives and waiting to make their moves.

Biggest winners: Johnson's victory vaulted him five positions into the points lead. But he doesn't have much room to breathe, with second place just seven points out and Newman continuing his strong entry into the Chase by riding a third-place finish to close within 12 points of Johnson.

"There's no better way to start the chase off," said Newman, who was the last driver to qualify for the Chase. "Especially when you [were] 10th in points."

For Johnson, the big win wasn't just taking the checkered flag for the third time this season. Johnson's big payoff was the certainty that the performance offers the team, which slumped at this point last season and appeared to be slumping approaching the playoffs this year.

According to Johnson, the key to avoiding the slump was to treat each race as if it were Race No. 8 or 16 or 23 -- in other words, nothing but another event.

"We need to continue to qualify in the top five and consistently finish up front as well," he said. "If we change what has made us successful in the past, we will decrease our chances of success in the Chase."

Feeling the Heat: Matt Kenseth had jumped from 16th in the points race to fifth in a span of five races. But he gave a third of that improvement away with one bad outing Sunday, experiencing tire and handling problems and ending the day in the wall and 35th.

Kenseth's string of five consecutive top-seven finishes was broken, and he now sits ninth in the standings, a daunting 124 points out. It's not that the point spread is insurmountable. Indeed, mathematically it could be erased in one race. However, with the Chase racers performing as well as Kenseth had been prior to Sunday, the fates conspiring to bring Kenseth back in the hunt that soon is unlikely.

Still, with another run of clean racing -- and maybe even a couple of victories -- anything's possible in eight races. At least, that's Kenseth's outlook.

"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," he said. "I'm worried about trying to win races and run up front. I can only control so much and try to run the best we can every week and see where it ends up."

Still on course: While Kenseth's 35th-place day and Kurt Busch's second consecutive sub-20th finish struck serious blows to each contender's title hopes, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were able to bounce back enough from weak outings Sunday to stay on course.

Despite each driver falling a lap down at some point during Sunday's race (Stewart did so twice), Biffle came back to finish 13th and Stewart managed an 18th-place finish.

The salvaged days have the duo tied for fifth, a mere 23 points out.

For Biffle, there was clear relief that a potentially disastrous day did little to harm his title hopes. For Stewart, there's never an excuse for finishing poorly, so his tolerance for his run was less forgiving.

"I'd probably describe [the day] as frustrating, probably," the Chevy driver said. "It wasn't the day we were looking for by any means. You know, it's obvious when you don't run in the top 10 and you run as bad as we did all day that it's not a good day, so I think that's pretty obvious to everybody."

Hardly a peep: There can be no question in this season's points race that flying under the radar is a good thing. Slow and steady, top five after top five is the way to work, and thus far that's the way retiring racers Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin have operated.

A sixth- and a third-place finish in the first two Chase races has Wallace sitting second, just seven points out. Similarly, seventh- and fourth-place finishes have Martin sitting fourth, only 21 points out.

"I'm probably driving right now better than I ever drove in my life," Wallace said, despite the fact that he's gone winless the entire year and has gone winless only two seasons out of his last 19. "I guess I don't need to be retiring, but hey, I've made the decision to do that.

"Still the thing I want to do is go out on top of my game, and I think we're doing a good job out there for these fans. I really love these fans, and I appreciate the job they're doing, pulling behind me."

Road Hazards: Kyle Busch has three top-four finishes in his last four races and looks to be getting stronger as he and the No. 5 Chevy team build toward next season.

Finishing top 10 is a must in this season's Chase, but it looks like Chase contenders are going to have to battle Busch for one of those coveted spots over the next eight events.

"We're really on a roll right now and it feels good," Busch said. "We're just going to keep doing what we are and hopefully we can get another one, or two [victories]."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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