Sideshows stealing Chase's thunder


KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The Chase for the Nextel Cup
championship is different this year. Last year, in the inaugural
run, the playoff atmosphere was intense. So far in 2005, the focus
is more on retaliation, rules and wrecks than on winning a title.

In the opener of the 10-race Chase, Robby Gordon and Kasey Kahne
overshadowed the 10 championship contenders with outbursts. They
even tried to retaliate with their cars after being knocked into
the wall by other drivers.

A week later at Dover, Del., contender Jimmie Johnson and teammate
Kyle Busch finished 1-2. Several of their opponents charged that
their Chevrolets were running with their rear ends too high off the
ground, but NASCAR gave the cars a few moments to settle in the
postrace inspection and both passed.

NASCAR said all the parts and pieces used in their rear shock
absorbers met standards, but a notice was sent a week later saying
those shocks would no longer be allowed. Other teams were angry the
Hendrick Motorsports duo was not penalized.

Last Sunday at Talladega, Ala., was the final race of the season where
horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates are used to slow
the cars. Multicar crashes damaged the chances of five of the 10
Chase competitors, and Johnson acknowledged he ignited one of the
big wrecks.

The Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday is the fourth of
the final 10 races. Tony Stewart leads Ryan Newman by four points,
with Rusty Wallace, Johnson, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt
Kenseth and Jeremy Mayfield all within 112 points of the leader.

Mark Martin crashed early and finished 41st at Talladega. He is
ninth in the standings, 138 points behind, and followed by reigning
champion Kurt Busch, who has struggled through the first three
races of the Chase.

A year ago, Johnson got off to a tough start in the Chase,
falling far off the pace when he crashed at Talladega and Kansas.
But that all turned around a week later at Lowe's Motor Speedway in
Concord, N.C., where he won for the first of three straight visits
to Victory Lane and four of the final six.

Johnson has noticed a difference this year.

"I see that the teams are a little more relaxed in the first
few races," he said Friday before practice began on the 1.5-mile
Kansas track.

"Last year, everybody felt that the champion was going to be
the team that made it clean through the final 10. This year, I
think the teams are a little bit smarter and everybody has realized
that last year everybody had problems."

"Now," he added, "as we get toward the halfway point in the
Chase, the intensity level is going to ramp up and catch up for

Stewart has been the hottest driver in the Cup series since
June. He has 14 top-10 finishes, including all five of his wins, in
his last 15 races.

"The same thing that got you in the Chase is the same thing
that's going to win you the Chase," he said. "You've got to be
consistent and you've got to be up front each week. That's the same
thing that got us 10 in the Chase in the first place"

Stewart, who has had his outbursts on and off the track for
years, understands what Johnson has been going through.

"It affects different guys different ways," he said. "Some
guys just put it out of their minds, some guys it bothers all week.
I'm not in that situation. I'm trying to worry about what I've got
to do to make a race car [work] instead of worrying about what
anybody else is feeling or doing right now."

Johnson was criticized this year for aggressive on-track moves,
but he insists that's all in the past.

"I've got to worry about a championship and about my team and
about winning races," he said. "And that's what I'm going to