How tight is the Chase for the Cup?

Originally Published: October 18, 2005
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Add Week 5 to the archive and brace yourself for the frenzy that is the 2005 Chase for the Nextel Cup.

In a 10-race, 10-driver format, there should be no surprise that the competition is tight. And it is, with a six-driver clog at the top, separated by 54 points.

Less predictable proved the obstacles along the way. Just notice the relief on the faces of those drivers among the top six after having come out of Lowe's Motor Speedway fairly cleanly.

When the Chase began, there were certain truths every driver had to deal with. Dover was going to mix things up. Talladega was going to give things a shake, too. Of course, Martinsville will be no picnic. But outside of that, it's pedal to the metal and hang on for dear life, right?

Drivers learned that wasn't all too accurate after watching a carnage akin to Talladega -- minus the Big One -- affect 16 drivers, including five Chase contenders.

When the dust settled, what remained was a 10-driver group of Championship hopefuls all within 142 points of the prize.

Biggest Winner: Jimmie Johnson. No question.

The California native who has set up a second home near Charlotte, N.C., has adopted Lowe's Motor Speedway as his second hometown track (to Fontana, of course) and has set a torrid pace for all. He's won four straight at the Concord, N.C., venue and jumped three spots to a tie with Tony Stewart for first in the championship race.

"I really feel this championship is about not losing it," Johnson said. "Tony had the dominant car tonight. If it didn't get out from underneath him, he probably would have won the race and it would be a different story. We've just got to do our job and not make any more mistakes -- especially on my part -- and not tear the car up or do anything stupid and we'll be in pretty good shape."

Feeling the Heat: Tony Stewart. Though the heat Stewart is feeling is the heat of competition. He's not faced with the monumental task of turning around an ailing ship, but rather fending off a group of Chasers who will keep the driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet striving for better than his average Chase finish of 10.2.

Stewart's certainly got the means to keep the hopefuls at bay, stringing together the series' most dominant performance of the year with 15 top-eight finishes in 17 tries. Even on Saturday he looked like the guy to beat, leading more than 60 laps and not losing the lead until his tire -- like just about everyone else's -- blew.

"We did the best with what we had," he said. "We had the fastest car all night."

Still on Course: Everybody, just about. Stewart had a seemingly commanding 75-point margin entering Saturday night's race, but a 25th-place finish left the door open for others to sneak back into contention. With his first-place finish, Johnson did just that. So, too, did Kurt Busch, who finished second; Greg Biffle, who finished third; Mark Martin, who finished fifth; Ryan Newman, who finished seventh; and Carl Edwards, who finished 10th.

Biffle, Newman, Martin and Edwards all are now within 54 points of leaders Stewart and Johnson.

"We needed Tony to have that one bad night like that, so it's gonna be a heck of a tight battle," Edwards said.

"We'd like to have a 150-point lead," Newman said, "but we'll just keep the pedal to the metal and see what happens."

Hardly a Peep: Jeremy Mayfield, again. He's not in Matt Kenseth's or Kurt Busch's flame-retardant shoes, trying to bounce back from a setback. No, Mayfield is eighth and the only one of three Chase contenders more than 100 points out of first who is there because he's been consistently mediocre. He's averaging almost a 13th-place finish halfway through 10 playoff events -- just once cracking the top 10 -- and so far that's not been nearly good enough to cut it.

Still, after the wreckage left behind, with tires busting left and right, Mayfield didn't think finishing without dramatic problems was anything to sneeze at.

"I'm just glad we came out of here 11th," he said.

Road Hazard: Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 Dodge introduced himself to NASCAR Nation and left fans with something to look forward to next year. His eighth-place finish shut some Chasers out of a top 10, like Mayfield, but Hamlin isn't going into his next two events thinking of himself as a spoiler. He's just happy to be aboard.

"I'm living the dream right now," he said.

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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