Start Your EnginesTen weeks ago, the opening race of the Chase was like the first day of school. The slate was clean and everyone was optimistic for a good 10-week session. As it has turned out, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon blew out the curve with their constant A's -- or in racing terms, six consecutive wins between them (two for Gordon followed by four in a row for Johnson) -- leading up to this weekend's season finale, in which one of them will be named valedictorian, er, Nextel Cup champion. For the rest of the class at Sunday's Ford 400 (3 p.m. ET, ABC), it will be merely a case of finishing out the term and looking ahead to next year. When the final points are added up, it is likely that the bottom of the Chase field will be further from the top than ever before in the brief four-year history of the format. Last year Kyle Busch was the 10th-place driver in the Chase and ended the year 448 points back of champion Johnson. Kurt Busch was 10th and 559 points back in 2005, while Jeremy Mayfield was 506 back in the same spot in the inaugural 2004 Chase. This year's field was expanded to 12 drivers, which naturally spreads out the points more from first to last, but Kurt Busch's current spot in 10th at 516 back is comparable to recent years and could end up worse than his mark in 2005. Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are 563 and 599 points back of Johnson in the 11th and 12th spots, respectively. Should the No. 48 Monte Carlo "old" car put up another win (would you be surprised?) or come close, anything less than a finish near the front by the bottom half of the Chase field could drop as many as seven drivers to a staggering 500 points behind. Of course some of it is the fault of the Hendrick Motorsports dominance, but drivers have also been their own worst enemies. Take Matt Kenseth, a top-5 finisher in his last four starts but toast in the points after a four-race stretch from Dover to Charlotte during which he was no better than 26th. "This year we've run competitive, not as good as the 48, but pretty darn competitive where we could be in the hunt, but we had a lot of problems along the way," Kenseth said. Everyone but Johnson, Gordon and third-place Bowyer (241 back but eliminated from contention) has had at least two bottom-half race finishes, some several more. Kurt Busch, hot coming into the Chase with two wins in the final six regular-season races, cooled off quickly with four finishes of 25th or worse in the first six Chase races and has only recently returned to running around the top 10 with two eighths and a 12th in the past three. His title hopes long ago dashed, he has had to find new motivation for the final month of racing. "The way they have it this year is that there are 12 drivers in the Chase, but only the top 10 get to drive their show cars around Manhattan and take to the stage at the NASCAR awards banquet," he said. "It's a case of team pride and wanting to be able to do all you can for your sponsors. Regardless of the outcome, our Miller Lite Dodge Team is proud of our accomplishments this season. We entered the year with the major goals of winning races and making the Chase and we accomplished that." It was hard to do much else this postseason, given the two at the head of the class.
Rocket ManJimmie Johnson: Getting away from the Chase for a moment, just digest JJ's 10 wins. Not since Jeff Gordon won 13 in 1998 (and 10 in 1996-97 when he was virtually on autopilot with Ray Evernham as crew chief) had anyone hit double-digits, and one could reasonably imagine never seeing it again. "I wouldn't have thought it," Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle said. "We won six in 2005 and then Kasey Kahne won six last year and that's a lot of races to win in a season. I thought it was probably possible after 2005 that I had enough confidence and thought that that could be done again or maybe get eight, but that's a lot of wins. I would have never thought it." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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