Chasers still following leader Stewart
The Chase for the Nextel Cup returned to an intermediate track in Week 4, and drivers took advantage of the more predictable racing environment to return to the top of the leaderboard.The Chase racers took the top seven spots at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, showing once again why they're throwing down for the title.
The biggest side effect: Pressure on the guys who have had difficulty posting top 10s and top fives. With Lowe's Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway on tap -- all intermediates or tracks with similar elements -- drivers must find a way to finish up top.
Of course, most need one other thing to happen, too.
"He has been very consistent through everything so far," Jimmie Johnson said of Tony Stewart, who continues to lead the points race. "Dover was a bad day for him, but all in all he's been very strong and up front. We'll just have to see how this thing shakes out. There are a lot of races left. We're doing what we need to do, and hopefully when the checkered flag falls in Homestead we have all the points we need."
Biggest winners: With his victory, which comes one week after getting taken out at Talladega Superspeedway, Mark Martin is creeping back into contention. Martin pulled to within 113 points of first, almost right back in the thick of the race for second place, with the five drivers ahead of him separated by only 20 points.
Martin came out of the last set of pit stops in the lead and showed determination to win that almost willed him to Victory Lane.
"I don't want to lose," Martin said. "I always tell these guys to give me the lead with four fresh tires with the end in sight and you'll never get a fight like you're going to get from me."
Still, neither Martin nor any of the five racers ahead of him are right back into the hunt because of the day's other big winner: Tony Stewart. The No. 20 Chevy team notched yet another top-five finish and opened up a 75-point lead on the field.
"I have six races to go," Stewart said. "That's the main thing. We've got a long way to go. I'm just really happy and proud of this Home Depot team and what they've done. Even battling through days like today. We had a bad day at Dover. We had, in my opinion, a bad day today, but ended up with a top-five run, and that's what we need to do to win this thing."
Feeling the heat: Jeremy Mayfield has been quiet for three weeks now, and it's now landed him into a bit of trouble. With 157 points standing between him and Stewart now, it's honestly not the points that Mayfield needs to be concerned about. It's his inability to finish top five when most of the rest of the contenders have shown a propensity to do so.
Kurt Busch refuses to signal the end of his bid to defend the 2004 title, but to say he's feeling the heat is an understatement. With 224 points separating him from Stewart, and an equally daunting 129-point deficit separating him from the five-driver pack right behind Stewart, Busch has an almost impossible task. Even if he went on a Jimmie Johnson-like victory streak, Busch himself showed last season that checkered flags aren't enough when the leader maintains a steady pace.
Still on course: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Rusty Wallace and Jimmie Johnson closed to within 100 points of Stewart. One false move by Tony Stewart's No. 20 team and any one of those guys is back in the game, along with Ryan Newman, who fell from four points out to the leader of this pack of second-bests. That's enough to put a little pressure on the 20 team, but it's also only enough to give those guys a glimmer of hope. They're all waiting for someone else to make contention possible again.
"They're going to be very hard to beat, " Biffle said of Stewart's team. "They're going to have to have another off day like they did at Dover, and we're going to have to not get a flat tire in order to close in on them. Just 10 points a race isn't going to do it, and what are the chances of me finishing second for the next six races? That's pretty unlikely, as well, so we can only do as good as we can do and can't really worry about the outcome. We're worried about it, but we really can't do anything about the outcome of the 20 [team]."
Hardly a peep: Matt Kenseth's fifth-place finish is a perfect example of how Chasers depend on Stewart for their own success. Despite a solid finish, he made up virtually no ground on Stewart because Stewart finished fourth. That leaves Kenseth 116 points out and hoping for not only a Stewart hiccup but also snags for the rest of the Chasers, too.
"I think you've just got to look at every race and do the best you can every race," Kenseth said. "I think everyone in front of us was in the chase, so they're all gaining points on us, but you can't really look at it like that. You've got to do the best you can. We've raced three out of the four Chase races and finished in the top five, and we were running great at Dover before we blew a tire. We were running in the top five there, too. That's all you can ask for. If you run that good every week, you're gonna have a shot at the end."
Road hazards: Jeff Gordon proved a road hazard at Kansas with a top-10 finish, but that's no guarantee he'll be a road hazard the rest of the way. Gordon used to be a virtual lock for a fifth-place finish at Kansas. That he finished 10th is only good news in a season where he ranks an unbelievable 14th.
"The biggest thing is just getting me comfortable so I can get aggressive and we can get aggressive with the setups," Gordon said of the team's plans for finishing out the year. "I need something to lean on and feel secure and be able to jump back in that throttle and carry that corner speed. That's what makes fast race cars and eventually it can win races. We're working a little bit with the pit crew and communication between [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and myself. Everything is going in the right direction. It's a slow process. It's not going to happen overnight. We know that."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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