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 everybody."
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 do."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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