Stewart has only one more hurdle to clear
And then there were four.
At least mathematically, that is.
In reality, barring at least two unforeseen events, the Chase for the Nextel Cup will be a two-man battle once the Ford 400 gets under way late Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Unless something happens to points leader Tony Stewart or runner-up Jimmie Johnson, Roush Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle will join 39 other drivers as supporting cast members on that afternoon.
Stewart, gunning for his second title, holds a 52-point lead over Johnson, meaning a ninth-place or better finish will earn him the crown even if Johnson wins the race and gains the bonus points for leading the most laps.
Johnson, though, has at least a shot at the title if Stewart has the rare off day, is hindered by contact on the track, has trouble during a pit stop or has something break on his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. If that happens, and Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevy is up to the task, Johnson could snare the title that has been just out of his grasp the past few seasons.
Edwards and Biffle, though, can only dream of everything going their way for 400 miles. And that will be enough only if something happens to the two leaders. Edwards enters the race 87 points out of the lead, with Biffle a nearly insurmountable 102 points back.
Here's a look at the four drivers still technically in contention for the title and how they reached this point during the Chase.
Can you say consistency, race fans? Stewart and his JGR crew certainly can.
With the exception of the second Chase race at Dover, Del., where Stewart simply couldn't get his car to handle, he has been the picture of consistency the past nine races.
A second-place run at New Hampshire (in Loudon) set the tone as Stewart led 173 of 300 laps. Then came Dover, an 18th-place finish that dropped him to fifth in what was still a tightly bunched field. A second-place effort at Talladega, Ala., though, moved him back atop the pack, and he has stayed there ever since.
Fourth at Kansas (in Kansas City, Kan.), Stewart was a threat to win at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., a week later until a cut tire relegated him to a 25th-place finish that was no indication of how well he ran.
Obviously unfazed, Stewart bounced back to post finishes of second, ninth, sixth and fourth to build on his lead.
He says it's hard to explain his team's consistency.
"It seems like when you find a piece of the equation that works for you, it seems like it works for you at a lot of places," Stewart said. "It's a real compliment to our race team that no matter if it's a half-mile track or a two-and-a-half-mile superspeedway or a road course or a mile-and-a-half or a mile oval, we've been able to be consistent. That shows that our team is pretty well-rounded. It's not really one thing that you can put your finger on; it's really a combination of things that all came together at once."
If those things come together for one more day, Stewart will add a Nextel Cup trophy to go along with the Winston Cup title he won in 2002.
Another solid run might not be enough for Johnson, who might end up second in points for the third straight year. Four wins during the Chase couldn't get the job done last year, and he has won two of the nine Chase races thus far in 2005 but it still might leave him wanting more.
More points, that is.
Johnson was fourth entering the Chase, but a normally solid eighth-place run at New Hampshire dropped him to sixth in the standings. That changed a week later, though, as a win at Dover vaulted him into the points lead.
It was short-lived, however, as a 31st-place finish at Talladega dropped Johnson to fourth. The race also ignited its share of controversy after he made contact with Elliott Sadler to spark the day's first big crash. Then he had a tire go down and was involved in another wreck, finishing 32 laps off the pace.
Finishes of sixth, first and third at Kansas City, Charlotte, and Martinsville, Va., respectively, moved him back to second, and he has stayed there after a disappointing 16th at Atlanta, a fifth at Texas (in Fort Worth) and a seventh-place run at Phoenix.
Johnson, though, is keeping things in perspective and says he doesn't plan to let the pressure get to him.
"Last year, I learned a lot of lessons. One was that you do all you can," Johnson said. "I made some mistakes last year in the car -- letting the pressure get to me too early, I crashed a car at Kansas -- trying to make something of a bad day. If I would have just finished that race in 20th position, where I was running at the time, I would have easily made up the eight points [by which he lost the title to Kurt Busch] and it would have been a different championship. So even though it is a 10-race format at the end, there is an element of survival there.
"I want to do my best job possible and get everything I can out of the car every lap, but not make any mistakes. Still, this year, I've made some mistakes I regret, but it's part of racing. When you're out there laying it all on the line, sometimes you step over it and other times you're on this side of it. It's been good and very uneventful for us. So everything is good. Our team confidence is high, and everything is rolling."
Johnson says he has been better prepared for the pressures of the Chase this year, but he knows Stewart is more relaxed, too. He thinks that's why the two of them have been around the front throughout the Chase.
"If you watch football and baseball and the pitcher is in the final game of the World Series and he's standing on the mound sweating bullets, you sense a mistake coming," Johnson says. "But when you see somebody calm and relaxed, you know he's in control. That comes from experience. Tony has won a lot of championships and is already a Cup champion -- unlike me. I feel like I've got to do this. I don't have a championship. I know Tony would like a second one, but I think it's like winning your first race. You have to win your first race. So we're both calm and relaxed."
Edwards was eighth entering the Chase, and two bad races might well go down as the events that kept him from winning it all in his first full Cup campaign.
A 19th-place run at New Hampshire dropped him back in the field, and a 26th-place at Martinsville hurt even more. Other than that, though, he has been quite consistent, with a ninth at Dover, fifth at Talladega, third at Kansas and 10th at Charlotte.
He rebounded from Martinsville with wins at Atlanta and Texas and finished sixth at Phoenix.
"We have to go to Homestead with an aggressive mind-set," Edwards says. "We can't go there and be conservative. We have to run very well to get this finished."
A season of highs and lows has cost Biffle during the Chase. Although he started with a fourth at New Hampshire, a 13th at Dover and then a wreck-hindered 27th at Talladega dropped him into the middle of the pack before he finished second at Kansas City and third at Charlotte.
Alas, 20th-place runs at Martinsville and Texas kept him from capitalizing on a seventh-place effort at Atlanta and a runner-up performance at Phoenix. "We're certainly not in it anymore," Biffle said at Phoenix. "I kind of counted myself out [after Texas], but wanted to keep hopes up that we might have an opportunity. The reality is that next year we're gonna go after it again."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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