Great NASCAR 'chase' under way

Aug 18, 2009 5:06 PM
Finish Line by Micah Roberts |

Johnson’s ok, Martin’s dropping

Last week, for the second consecutive Michigan race in 2009, Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel in the final laps while leading. Mark Martin, the beneficiary of Johnson’s first empty fuel tank, won that June race.

Last week, Martin suffered the same fate as Johnson as he too ran out of fuel late. After all the dust settled, Brian Vickers captured his first win of the season and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Vickers who trails the Race to the Chase by 12 points.

Johnson’s 33rd place finish doesn’t hurt him because he’s firmly entrenched in the Chase, but for his teammate Martin, it stings plenty. Martin needed a good run at Michigan to solidify his chances of making the Chase where he can use his series leading four wins to make him the Chase leader as it begins.

However, Martin dropped one position from 11th to 12th only 12 points ahead of Vickers for the final Chase position.

Only three races remain in the Chase to the race – Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Only 166 points separate seventh place Juan Pablo Montoya from 15th place Kyle Busch and the three tracks that the drivers get to make their run or else clinch their current status are all pretty diverse.

This week’s race at Bristol starts this run off with its new brand of Bristol racing which resembles a shorter Dover now. Since changing the unique fast short track, Bristol racing isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still under the lights with almost 200,000 fans hovering above the track, so the excitement level is still sure to be there.

After an off-week, the Series rolls into Atlanta’s 1.5-mile fast track that should favor a select few such as last week’s winner Brian Vickers, but maybe not so kind to others such as Kyle Busch who has struggled on tracks like it this season.

The Grand Finale comes under the lights in Richmond. This is where the Chase will be set and three of the current contenders will be left out. Just who might those drivers be? Here are some notes on the contenders and how they may do for the next three races based on a mix of how they are currently going, how they have done on the tracks this year and beyond, and how they reacted under pressure in the past.

7. Juan Pablo Montoya - 2887 pts: He ended his streak of nine straight top-12 finishes last week, but has been a model of consistency all season. He is sitting nice right now and should be real good at the short tracks of Richmond and Bristol where he had top-10 finishes there in the spring.

8. Kasey Kahne - 2884 pts: Of all the drivers currently in the Chase, he is a good candidate to make it despite being in eighth. Kahne has melted under pressure down the stretch in two of his three Chase runs over his career including last season. He’s only made the chase once in his five years on tour. Earlier this year at Richmond, where he has to perform well at, he had a 29th.

9. Ryan Newman - 2845 pts: He has been up and down all year, but his downs haven’t been too bad. His best run of the season came in the spring when the series visited Bristol and Richmond where he ran well during a 10 race stretch where he had five top-5 finishes along with three other top-10’s. Newman should be good to in make it.

10. Greg Biffle - 2821 pts: He needed a much better run at Michigan to increase his chances of making it because now he’s only got Atlanta where he runs very well. He didn’t run well at Bristol and Richmond in the spring. He should be in, but he’s cutting it close.

11. Matt Kenseth - 2811 pts: Following his back-to-back wins to start the season at Daytona and California, he has been worse than mediocre and is fortunate to be where he’s at right now. He actually moved a position because of Martin’s poor run last week, but he is not safe at all. He has always run well on these tracks coming up, but this isn’t the same team as in past years. He has never missed the Chase, but is a top candidate to miss it this year.

12. Mark Martin - 2791 pts: He should run very well at all three tracks coming up, but that was supposed to be the case last week at Michigan where he had a great car. He should never be in this position considering how dominant he’s been, but because he’s finished 31st or worse in seven of the 23 races thus far, he’s an all or nothing case. America would like to hope he’s in; who can’t root for a 50 year old to win his first title ever?

13. Brian Vickers - 2779 (-12 pts behind): He’s sitting in a nice place right now and wiped off 84 points of deficit with his win last week. His biggest climb will come at Richmond and Bristol where he has been beat up in the past. He may contend for the Atlanta win, but if he doesn’t get top-10’s or close, he’ll be hard pressed to make it. One positive is that he ran well at Richmond in May where his 15th place was his best run there since his rookie season.

14. Clint Bowyer - 2733 (-58 pts behind): This guy knows how to play the game and just happens to run well at all the tracks coming up, especially Richmond and Bristol. He ran a solid eighth last week and likely will run similarly the same in the next three which will likely get him in. He was in the same position last season and ran down Kahne and beat him out in a very cool and calm demeanor it takes to make it when outside looking in.

15. Kyle Busch 2721 (-70 points behind): The good news is that he won at Bristol and Richmond in the spring, the bad news is that he’s only had one top-5 finish since winning at Richmond in May, a span of 13 races. This will be the most compelling and dramatic story for the next three weeks because we have a chance to see a great talent dig deep and race his way in, or we have a chance to see a great talent melt down and go crazy in front of the camera. His chances are slim of making it, but if anyone can do it, it is Kyle. He just needs to get his head straight and focus.

I’ll go against history and wisdom and look for Busch and Bowyer to make it with Kenseth and Kahne falling out.

This week’s race at Bristol takes on an extra special piece of fun because of the double-file restarts which were not in place when they ran there in March. Look for the best Bristol race since they made such a drastic change to the track two years ago.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Micah Roberts