Last week's regular season finale at Richmond provided plenty of action. The stage is set for what I expect will be the most hotly contested Chase for the Cup in years.
The race began with only 4 drivers locked into the Chase by points earned in the first 25 races. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson, and Denny Hamlin had performed well enough to guarantee a chance at the title, no matter how they finished. The other 8 playoff spots were up for grabs with 11 drivers vying for those roles. Actually, David Reutimann was practically eliminated by the race's start anyway. He basically would have needed a win and with the next 3 drivers ahead of him all finishing near the back to qualify - very unlikely. I'll save you the drama...he didn't win and the guys in front all raced better than him anyway. The real drama centered around 3 drivers tyring to lock up the final spot.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth has qualified for the Chase every year since it's inception in 2004 (Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to do this). He started the year with back to back wins at Daytona and California and saw reasonable success over the first half of the year. In the most recent weeks leading up to Richmond, Kenseth and his team were really struggling and falling each week in the overall points race. Before the race, Kenseth was even quoted as saying, "If we don't make the Chase, I'll be disappointed...but I won't be surprised" seemingly foreshadowing his own fate. He entered the race with a 20-point lead over 13th place Brian Vickers.
Brian Vickers - Prior to the 2009 season, Vickers's only win came in controversial fashion at Talladega Superspeedway in 2006. (If you read my article about this season's Spring Talladega race, you will see that it basically takes patience and luck to win there.) Vickers had a consistent season, often running in the top 5 and finishing an average of 15th. He's also been the fastest in qualifying 6 times, leading all drivers this year. He won just his second career race at the Sprint Cup level this year by appropriately beating the rest of the field in a fuel-mileage race at Michigan International Speedway (Vickers drives a Toyota and Michigan is often referred to as the big 3 auto-makers backyard). Hopes were high, but cautious, at Richmond because Vickers is not necessarily known for his short-track skills, and Richmond measure only .75 miles around.
Kyle Busch - Trailing Brian Vickers by 17 points and Matt Kenseth by 37, Kyle would need to beat Vickers by 4 or more spots and Kenseth by about 13 spots to earn his place in NASCAR's playoff. If everything fell into place, Busch would then get a boosted to a tie for 1st place with Mark Martin, as each has won 4 races this season (regular season victories counts as 10 bonus points to start the Chase). Something else working in Kyle's favor was the memory of the Spring Richmond race 4 months ago which he won.
No need for specifics, so here's a fast rundown of the 400 laps last Saturday night. Kenseth started near the back of the pack after a poor qualifying effort. He spent most of the race around 25th-30th, all but sealing his fate. His last-ditch effort was to stay on the track when caution flew with 25 laps to go. He was one lap down, and visiting pit road would guarantee him no better than 28 place...he finished 25th instead. The door was wide open for Kyle and Brian, and they provided some great action.
At various points throughout the night, Busch and Vickers swapped spots for the final place in the playoffs. During that last caution, Kyle left pit road a few spots ahead of Brian. But as the final laps ticked away, Busch crossed 6th and Vickers 8th, allowing Brian to hold onto an 8 point lead and a shot at the title.
The other big story of the night was hometown hero Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is from Chesterfield, Virginia which is about 30 minutes Southwest of Richmond. In a half-dozen previous races at Richmond International Raceway, Denny had seen successful runs falter in the final laps. This weekend he was able to put together a complete performance, earning his 2nd win of the season and an additional 10 bonus points to his Chase effort.
What's to come:
Tomorrow (probably "today" by the time I finalize this post) is race 1 of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The race will be run at the flat, 1-mile oval known as New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson looks to continue his amazing playoff performance by going for a record-breaking 4th straight Sprint Cup Championship. The most impressive drivers during the regular season in '09 all drive Hendrik Motorsports (think New York Yankees) engines in their Chevrolets...a recurring theme for a sport that is supposed to have an even playing field. One of these 4 contenders (Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, and Martin) probably accounts for 99% of experts' picks to win it all. Though I can't disagree, I'm hoping for more parity than is expected.
So if you are a sometimes watcher of NASCAR, Sunday is a good time to tune in. I know the football season is young and exciting, but for the local Bears fans that might be reading this, I promise you will find more surprises and entertainment here than the Steelers blowout looming on the horizon. In the past few seasons, a driver that quietly made the playoffs usually asserts himself early in the Chase.
Last year Greg Biffle immediately moved from 8th to 2nd (and only 10 points out of first) by winning the first 2 Chase races at New Hampshire and Dover. These were Biffle's first two wins of the year. Tomorrow, Juan Pablo Montoya looks to follow suit as he won no races during the regular season and currently sits tied for 9th in Chase points. Montoya won the poll in qualifying Friday afternoon and also had the fastest lap in final practice today.
1 - Mark Martin - 5040 (4 wins)
2 - Tony Stewart & Jimmie Johnson - 5030 (3 wins each)
4 - Denny Hamlin & Kasey Kahne - 5020 (2 wins each)
6 - Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers - 5010 (1 win each)
9 - Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman - 5000
Though it's far too early to make any quality guesses, I will still throw out mine below. I swear NASCAR is a sport you can really get behind, and I hope some of you skeptics will give it a chance.
Likely Winner Based on Recent History - Jimmie Johnson - #48 Lowes Chevrolet
Likely Winner Based on Season Performance - Tony Stewart - #14 Office Depot Chevrolet
Fan-Favorite (and my pick) - Mark Martin - #5 Kellogs Chevrolet
Sleeper Pick to Watch Out For - Carl Edwards - #99 Aflac Ford
Gentlemen, start your engines!