Brian Vickers surprisingly secured the final spot in the chase Saturday night, leaving Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch on the outside looking in. Twelve drivers will now vie for the championship, and points are reset with ten points awarded for each win accumulated during the first 26 races. Thus the points start as follows:
Mark Martin 40, Tony Stewart & Jimmie Johnson 30, Denny Hamlin & Kasey Kahne 20, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch & Brian Vickers 10, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya 0.
While 40 points may not seem like a lot, those with zero points have an uphill battle. Not only do the drivers with no points have to make up 40 points on the leader, they also have to jump over 11 others. In fact, in 2007 Gordon was better than Johnson in the chase, but he just couldn't overcome the 20 point deficit he had heading in and Gordon claimed that the 20 point deficit cost him the championship that year.
With that in mind, here is an analysis of the chase using the 10 tracks that make up the chase (New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, California, Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead-Miami) as a guide. The figures in brackets are the odds on WSEX's futures exchange at the time of publishing and are listed in order of expectation.
Jimmie Johnson (+284):
Past 5 years at chase tracks: 17 wins, 41 top 5 finishes (51%) avg. finish: 9.3 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 2 wins, 4 top 5 finishes (50%), avg. finish: 8.6.
What can be said about the man vying for a 4th straight championship? Johnson does extremely well at all the tracks that make up the chase and the results reflect that fact. His 17 wins in the last 5 years are more than double any other driver and his average finish is tops. It seems the chase tracks were made for him, which is why many other competitors want a road course and possibly a 2nd short track added to even things out. That said, Johnson will have a target on his head. Other than his owner Jeff Gordon and possibly Mark Martin, Johnson will have no friends on the track. Fans are also starting to turn on Johnson, and for the first time Johnson has been showing some signs of cracking late in races. His 3 wins represent the lowest number of wins for him in years heading into the chase. Furthermore, some of the races could come down to fuel mileage, and Johnson has demonstrated he isn't great at saving fuel. While Edwards and Gordon have been able to extend their fuel to the end on numerous occasions, Johnson has run out of gas each time it turned into a fuel race. Johnson is the obvious choice to win it all, but he can be beaten this year and most NASCAR fans are rooting against him.
Mark Martin (+455):
Past 5 years at chase tracks: 2 wins, 16 top 5 finishes (23%), avg. finish: 14.7 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 1 win, 1 top 5 finish (13%), avg. finish: 17.3.
The point leader heading into the chase seems to be up against it looking at past numbers at the chase tracks, but it must be noted this is the first year for Martin at Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has excelled since the chase format started. As for his results at the 8 tracks from this year, most were run early in the season when Martin had engine issues. Throw out the last place finish at Talladega and the 40th place finish at California and Martin's average finish this year at the 6 other tracks is 9.1. In fact in the last half of the year Martin was more consistent than Johnson. Martin would be the feel good story should he win the championship this year. The 50 year old has been racing in Cup since 1981 and has yet to win a championship, although he does have 4 runner up finishes and 4 3rd place finishes. Martin actually came out of retirement hoping for one last chance at the championship trophy. Martin had a career year in 1998 with 7 wins, and in any other year would have run away with the championship, but was up against an almost invincible Jeff Gordon that year. Many claim Martin's biggest fault is "he's just too nice a guy," but consistency is key in the chase and Martin knows how to points race. As well, his 4 wins this year demonstrate that he has more determination than ever. For the longest time it appeared Martin would finish well behind but he was the best driver the 2nd half of the year and it showed. Martin spent most of his career running the 6 car for Jack Roush and now is racing for a team that has won 7 of the last 14 championships. Furthermore, Martin's ability to get great starting spots will be key. It's certain Martin will do well at the 1 1/2 mile tracks, but the races at Talladega and Martinsville will be crucial. If he can come out with decent finishes at the tracks he hasn't fared well in, he could win his first championship.
Tony Stewart (+455):
Past 5 years at chase tracks: 4 wins, 26 top 5 finishes (33%), avg. finish: 15.0 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 4 top 5 finishes (50%), avg. finish: 11.3.
Gene Haas started racing in 2006 with the #70 and #66 cars usually run by Johnny Sauter and Jeff Green. The cars rarely qualified and were the perennial also rans in the field. Tony Stewart approached Haas for a partnership last year and took over the two cars, securing sponsorship for both. He changed the #70 car to #14, with Office Depot and Old Spice as sponsors, and changed the #66 to #39, securing the Army as a sponsor and Ryan Newman as the driver. Few expected anything out of them in the first couple of years, and Stewart himself suggested it would likely take some time before the cars were competitive. But a great display by both drivers at the Daytona 500 indicated they were well ahead of schedule. Stewart continued to improve the car, and by mid season he was the points leader. He maintained that position until the chase, and now will start 10 points behind Martin as the points are reset. Stewart has 2 championships under his belt, and there is no reason to expect he can't get a 3rd. Stewart is ultra consistent, always does well at the tracks that make up the chase, and as he demonstrated, once he gets a lead in the points he doesn't relinquish it easily. The only question that needs to be asked of Stewart is whether he has enough to beat Gordon, Johnson and Martin. At these odds he represents great value.
Jeff Gordon (+488):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 8 wins, 35 top 5 finishes (44%), avg. finish: 13.9 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 1 win, 4 top 5 finishes (50%), avg. finish: 13.9.
The 3rd Hendrick Motorsports car in the chase, what needs to be said about Gordon? The 4 time champion (although none since 2001) is probably the most recognized name in the sport. After missing the chase in 2007 despite scoring the most points in the old system, Gordon rebounded with a mediocre year in 2008. In 2009 he has been back with a vengeance. Gordon had a mid season slump, but he has been among the best drivers in the last few races. Gordon has always done well at all the tracks that comprise the chase---Dover is arguably his worst track, even though he is better than most drivers there. Gordon's biggest issue so far has been his teammate. Whenever Gordon performs well, Johnson seems to perform better. He has become much tamer since marrying and having a baby, which seems to have taken some of that killer instinct from Gordon. But in the chase system that's not necessarily a bad thing. Like Martin, he knows how to points race, and 2nd and 3rd place finishes are often better than wins, if going for the win involves taking unnecessary chances. Gordon also has the advantage of being a great fuel conservationist. In 3 races this year, Gordon was able to make it to the end while other drivers had to pit for fuel. In some races like Phoenix and Charlotte, that conservation ability could prove important.
Kurt Busch (+1566):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 2 wins, 18 top 5 finishes (23%), avg. finish: 18.3 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 4 top 5 finishes (50%), avg. finish: 10.2.
One of the more intriguing competitors in the chase, Kurt Busch could prove to be the spoiler for Penske Racing. Busch has been among the point leaders all year and does exceptionally well at the chase tracks. In fact his 10.2 average finish in the chase races so far this year is 2nd best to Johnson. Busch's average at chase tracks hasn't been great the last 5 years, but Penske struggled for some time after Rusty Wallace left the team. It seems the team is getting back to its old self, and even Sam Hornish Jr. has been performing admirably in the last little while. Busch only has one victory this year, which means he'll have to leapfrog several drivers. But he was the first chase winner in 2004 after starting the chase in last place. Busch isn't a favourite, nor should he be, but he represents an upset possibility at high odds should the favourites show any cracks. One problem for Busch is that before the race at Richmond his crew chief announced he was leaving to go to Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year. Busch suggested that the timing was poor and could work against the team for the rest of the season.
Denny Hamlin (+1011):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 2 wins, 20 top 5 finishes (27%), avg. finish: 14.9 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 1 top 5 finish (13%), avg. finish: 13.8.
With Kyle Busch out of the chase, Joe Gibbs' hopes for a championship rests with Denny Hamlin. Hamlin has proven a bit of an enigma, as he can win just as easily as he can finish 30th. Mind you, Hamlin has been much more patient and consistent of late, which allowed him to make the chase with relative ease. Hamlin's biggest disability could be that he just doesn't do that well at most chase tracks. Hamlin struggles at high banked tracks and excels at flat ones. New Hampshire, Phoenix and Martinsville should prove best for Hamlin in the chase, but far less can be expected of him at tracks like Texas, Kansas, Dover and Miami-Homestead. Having said that, Hamlin enters the chase on a high note, having won the last race of the "regular season" at Richmond. It would be no surprise to see Hamlin leading the chase after New Hampshire, but he'll probably require some problems by the favourites to win it all. Regardless, Hamlin is a dark horse.
Carl Edwards (+1329):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 6 wins, 31 top 5 finishes (39%), avg. finish: 12.4 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 1 top 5 finish (13%), avg. finish: 13.8.
Edwards entered the year as one of the favourites, but he has been somewhat disappointing. In fact the whole Roush franchise has disappointed to some degree. Kenseth won the first 2 races of the year, and did nothing after, and Greg Biffle barely made the chase. David Ragan was supposed to be an up and comer, but was awful all year. The 10 chase tracks have generally favoured Roush cars, but this year, as mentioned, the team has done average at best on them. To make matters worse, Edwards broke a foot at the beginning of the month, and while he said it isn't affecting his ability to race, it has to be an issue at tracks that require a lot of braking like New Hampshire, Dover and Martinsville. Edwards could certainly turn things around, and Jack Roush has a proven ability to improve when need be, but generally cup winners have some momentum heading into the chase, and right now Edwards has little. With zero points, Edwards has to also leapfrog all drivers. One advantage Edwards does have is his ability to conserve fuel. In every race the team required Edwards to save gas he was able to do so. That fact could prove vital in some races. Edwards will get a lot of play from bettors, but at the moment he is an outsider.
Greg Biffle (+1900):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 9 wins, 30 top 5 finishes (38%), avg. finish: 14.7 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 4 top 5 finishes (50%), avg. finish: 11.0.
It's tempting to write ibid for Biffle from the last write-up about Edwards, but I won't. Mind you, everything that was written about Edwards (save for the broken foot), could be said about Biffle. The 2 are teammates and have the exact same issues. Biffle has been better than Edwards at the chase tracks this year, but he also enters the chase having done little for quite some time. In fact for a while it appeared Biffle could miss the chase. Of Biffle's 9 wins the last 5 years, 3 came at Homestead-Miami, and he has excelled at the same tracks Edwards and other Roush cars have. That said, Biffle is a longshot to win. For whatever reason, Biffle has performed poorly of late and has no momentum heading into the chase. To make matters worse, he starts the chase at some of his worst tracks. As well, unlike Edwards, Biffle is poor at conserving fuel, which could hurt. Biffle can't be written off completely, but unless he does a 180 it's unlikely he will win the championship.
Kasey Kahne (+1566):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 5 wins, 10 top 5 finishes (13%), avg. finish: 19.3 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 0 top 5 finishes (0%), avg. finish: 15.3.
A fan favourite, Kasey Kahne would be a pleasant surprise should he pull off the victory. Unfortunately, he is a longshot. While a few of Kahne's best tracks are part of the chase, many of his worst tracks are there also. It's almost certain he'll finish near the back at Talladega, and will struggle at New Hampshire, Phoenix and Dover. One advantage Kahne does have going for him is momentum. He was one of the best drivers heading into the chase and the team has turned things around of late. That said, he'd be a major surprise if he wins it all.
Ryan Newman (+3233):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 1 wins, 13 top 5 finishes (16%), avg. finish: 19.8 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 2 top 5 finishes (25%), avg. finish: 13.4.
Ryan Newman's past 5 year numbers, like Kurt Busch, were with Penske, which wasn't overly competitive during that time. Newman has a new lease on life with Stewart-Haas racing and has been quite consistent. But while Newman's consistency earned him a spot in the chase, it's not likely to be good enough to win the championship. Newman would need to show much more at tracks he has not done particularly well at, and he would also need to replace some of the 8th to 15th place finishes with top 5s. Newman has a lot of ability, but he doesn't appear to have what it takes to be a NASCAR champion yet.
Juan Montoya (+1900):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 0 wins, 0 top 5 finishes (0%), avg. finish: 21.5 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 0 top 5 finishes (0%), avg. finish: 15.5.
A Juan Montoya championship would be every traditional NASCAR fan's nightmare - a foreign born open wheel racing champion. Fortunately for the rednecks, Montoya is a big outsider. As can be seen from the stats, Montoya is a decent driver, but not one that has the ability yet to win the championship. Montoya's best courses are road courses and large flat tracks like Indianapolis and Pocono, none of which are part of the chase. Having said that, Montoya has been very consistent of late, and if some of the favourites struggle he could have a decent overall finish. For him to actually win the chase, however, is highly unlikely. One can somewhat ignore the last 5 year stats since Montoya has only been in the sport for 3 of them.
Brian Vickers (+4900):
Past 5 years at the chase tracks: 1 win, 8 top 5 finishes (10%), avg. finish: 19.9 2009 at 8 chase tracks that have been run: 0 wins, 1 top 5 finishes (13%), avg. finish: 18.9.
Brian Vickers stunned all NASCAR pundits when he took the last spot in the chase. The question on everyone's mind was whether Kenseth would hold onto 12th place in the points or whether Kyle Busch would steal it from him. Vickers, who never did well at Richmond, wasn't really even part of the equation. Nevertheless, a good finish at Richmond lets Vickers take the last spot. Unfortunately for Vickers, his chances of actually winning are very small. Vickers never does well at short tracks or flat mile tracks, and 3 of the tracks in the chase are just those tracks. In fact Vickers failed to qualify at New Hampshire the first time since he ran for Red Bull Racing. One could foresee Vickers performing well at Talladega, Texas, Charlotte and possibly Kansas or Homestead-Miami, but that just wouldn't be enough. Vickers does qualify well, however, which could help his chances a bit. Still, a Vickers championship would be quite a shock.
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