NASCAR reaches new ‘playoffs’ road

Sep 14, 2004 8:36 AM

Gentlemen, start your engines”¦.and let the chase begin.

After 26 races, we are finally down the best 10 drivers in NASCAR for the first ever playoff. Just like all the other major American sports, the playoff structure allows for great drama as sometimes the best don’t always win.

Sometimes it’s the individual or team who rose to the occasion for a two or three week stretch. Last year we saw the Mighty Empire of the Yankees taken down by the upstart Marlins. In football we saw the improbable Carolina Panthers almost win the Super bowl, and then watched the Detroit Pistons put it all together at the perfect time as they abused the show time of the Lakers.

While Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are easy favorites to win it all because of their dominance all season, let’s not forget that one slip up in any race can damage their chances severely. A driver like Mark Martin or Jeremy Mayfield could easily back in to the title by just finishing races while some of the top drivers on tour meltdown as the pressure of the situation intensifies like nothing else they have ever experienced in car racing.

Here’s a look at the drivers in the chase:

Jeff Gordon (9-5): The four-time former Cup champion is going to be tough to beat. The tracks that remain on the schedule are ones Gordon has done very well on over his career.

Jimmie Johnson (3-1): He’s been in a meltdown state for the last two months. Can he pick up the pieces and get back on track like he was for the first 18 races? Possibly, but he’d better do it quickly starting with New Hampshire this week and then Dover the following week. Both are places he’s done very well.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (7-2): The people’s choice as champion. He has flipped the "On" switch the last few weeks and has his team dialed in pretty good. He’ll be a force from here on out.

Tony Stewart (5-1): He’s just been hanging around. He hasn’t been very good or bad, just good enough to get solid points every week. Stewart has an advantage over most of the drivers because of the tracks they are running on.

Matt Kenseth (6-1): Last year’s reigning champ still doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He has perhaps the best mindset of all the drivers coming in which is letting every race come to him and not forcing anything, sort of like an old Bobby or Terry Labonte-like style.

Elliott Sadler (8-1): He has really come on of late and made quite a few people take notice of him. He should have good runs at Charlotte, Atlanta, and Kansas, but the other seven tracks will tell his story.

Kurt Busch (9-1): Two years ago, Busch went on a tear on these very same tracks winning at Miami, Martinsville, and Atlanta down the stretch. He’s been hot of late. Over the last six races, only Martin and Jamie McMurray have accumulated more points.

Mark Martin (9-1): Martin winning the title in the new points scenario would be the greatest justice in NASCAR history. He’s always been second best. Four times in his career, Martin has been runnerup in points when he may have been the best during a few of those seasons. This year, he’s been maybe the seventh or eighth best and has an opportunity to be crowned the best and earn the championship for the first time in his great career. This will be the guy I will root for.

Jeremy Mayfield (12-1): This guy put all his chips on the table in the most pressure of situations and said, "I’m all in"! Mayfield won the race he had to last week and moved up five positions to get himself in the playoffs. He’s been running great over the last two months and now only has to make up 40 points.

Ryan Newman (15-1): He took the summer off and then finally put some pieces back together to get into the playoffs. Still not sold on the team right now because it’s obvious they aren’t the same as the dominant teams they’ve had in the past. At 15-1 however, anything can happen. He’s got a new lease on life and is only 45 points back.

This week’s race at New Hampshire kicks off all the festivities.

Kurt Busch (7-1) won the earlier race there in July and he’s bringing back the same car that won that event this week.

Jimmie Johnson (8-1) swept both races last year, but had difficulties this year finishing 11th.

Jeff Burton (20-1) is a driver to keep an eye on. He is the track’s all-time leader in wins with four. His last victory at NHIS came in 2000. Since his move to the No. 30 AOL Childress Chevy, he has been very good and may have the best goods of the three-car team. Richard Childress must be looking to change things up because everyone who has drove that car has had trouble and now all of sudden, the car is a contender.