With seven races remaining in the NASCAR’s chase for the Nextel Cup championship, the drivers have been separated into contenders and pretenders.
Though there have been only three races run is this new point structure, there are a few surprises with drivers who were thought to be contenders but are wilting under the pressure. That type of pressure has never been part of the NASCAR game this late in the season and it’s why the new structure is such a resounding success.
Jimmie Johnson was one of the drivers who was vocally against the new system and understandably so because of his position in points before the playoff started. He had been in the lead or near it for the entire season. He had been dreading the playoffs for months before it even started and as it approached, something happened to the team for the worse.
They came limping into the playoffs as one of the favorites and are now sitting in ninth place, 172 points behind the leader, Dale Earnhardt Jr. The pressure has been mounting with that team for some time and now that everything is unraveling, they can’t seem to get in sync with each other. Last week at Talladega should have been a perfect spot for them to gain some ground on many of the drivers. They were one of only two teams that had finished in the top five of all three restrictor plate races on the season, yet managed to have something go wrong again.
Johnson is listed at 22-1 to win the title. While he’s still a long shot to win it all at this point, he does have the capability to run great on all the remaining tracks, particularly Kansas, Charlotte, and Atlanta. He’ll need some help from the leaders meaning he’ll need them to experience some bad luck as he has for the last two months.
The driver that is really sitting sweet at this point is Jeff Gordon who is the favorite at 8-5 to win it all. Even though he’s never won at Phoenix or Miami, he’s done well enough there to compliment his greatness on all the remaining tracks down the stretch.
Dale Earnhardt Jr is 9-5 and is the sentimental choice of all. His father won seven championships and Junior always talks about wanting to matching his father whether it’s winning on the same tracks or winning championships. He has done what he was supposed to up this point.
Station Casinos has a prop bet involving picking the manufacturer the winning Cup car. Chevrolet is a —220 favorite, the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge are +180. Both Junior and Gordon drive Chevy’s, but the next three in line all drive Fords, beginning with Las Vegan Kurt Busch who is only 13 points from the lead. Fellow Roush teammates Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth round out the top Ford contenders.
Two years ago Busch went on a tear down the stretch where he won three of the last five races on the season. The tracks he won on were Martinsville, Atlanta, and Miami, all still yet to come in this years chase. His team is basically the same with the same set-ups and his mind is much more focused on racing hard. He kind of took a step back amid all the Jimmy Spencer controversy and it took away from his game. Right now his game is back on and he could take this whole thing if someone slips.
This week’s race at Kansas Speedway is the fourth Cup race run on the track. Jeff Gordon won the first two and Ryan Newman took last years race. In each of the races Gordon won, Newman finished second . In the race Newman finally won last year, Gordon finished fourth. They are the only drivers to finish in the top of every Kansas race.
The car that Bill Elliott drove for Ray Evernham, the one that Kasey Kahne drives now, had two top five finishes at Kansas including last year when Elliott finished second. Right behind Elliott was his teammate Jeremy Mayfield in third. Both Mayfield and Kahne should do very well this week.
Here are the odds to win the Nextel Cup: Jeff Gordon 7-5; Dale Earnhardt Jr. 9-5; Kurt Busch 3-1; Mark Martin 4-1; Matt Kenseth 12-1; Tony Stewart 13-1; Ryan Newman 22-1; Jimmie Johnson 22-1; Elliott Sadler 25-1; Jeremy Mayfield 75-1.