Mark Martin accomplished at New Hampshire what every driver in the Chase set out to do when they unloaded the haulers on Friday.
Martin’s first-ever win at New Hampshire was the 40th of his career and, more importantly, his fifth of the season to go along with 15 top-10 finishes. That shows the kind of consistency it takes to eventually win the series title.
Martin entered the first race of the 10-race Chase schedule with a 10-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart but leaves New Hampshire with a 35- point lead over Johnson who finished fourth. Denny Hamlin finished in the runner-up spot and is also 35 points out of the top spot, but actually sits in third as Johnson has three wins on the season compared to Hamlin’s two. The number of wins on the season is the first option used when NASCAR breaks any ties in the point standings.
Tony Stewart, who sat on top of the points after the first 26 races of the season leading into the Chase round, took a hit in the points as his 14th-place finish dropped him four spots to sixth. He now trails Martin by 74 points. He wasn’t the only Chase driver to take a hit as Jeff Gordon’s 15th-place finish dropped him four spots to 10th, but the biggest hit was taken by Kasey Kahne who had engine problems early in the race and finished a very disappointing 38th. That dropped him seven spots to 12th, 161 points from the top spot.
New Hampshire is only one race and when you look back at the results of this race since the Chase system for determining the Cup champion was introduced in 2004, it’s hard to make an argument that a driver has to get off to a great start to compete for the title. Kurt Busch has been the only driver to win this race and go on and win the title.
Those Chase drivers that left New Hampshire on Sunday night finding themselves farther behind than when the green flag waved to begin the race don’t need to get into the panic mode. Johnson in 2006 finished 39th at this race but recovered during the next nine events to win his first-ever championship by 56 points over Matt Kenseth.
When the points were reset to start the Chase there was only a 40-point differential between Martin in the top spot and the four drivers that entered the championship round without a win during the first 26 races of the season (Montoya, Newman, Biffle, Edwards). The field has already started to get some separation as five drivers now find themselves 90 points or more off the lead.
CHASE NOTES: If experience plays any factor into the Chase, Jimmie Johnson may have the inside track. He is the only driver to appear in all six Chases and all three of his championships have taken place during the era of the Chase. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart follow Johnson with five Chase appearances, but it is Johnson who has dominated the 51 Chase races. He has won a series high 14 races — more than twice the nearest driver as Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle follow in second with six Chase wins each. Johnson also leads all drivers with top-5 Chase finishes with 26 but is followed closely by Gordon with 22 and Carl Edwards with 20. All the wins and top-5 finishes combine to put the defending threetime champion in a league of his own when it comes to Chase races. He is the only driver to average a top-10 finish in Chase races with a 8.7 average finish.
PIT NOTES: News surrounding the recent announcement of the merger between Richard Petty Motorsports and Yates Racing continues to surface with the latest being the status of Petty driver Reed Sorenson.
Apparently, Sorenson has been driving for Petty for free since back in the summer. The driver of the famed #43 Dodge was given the choice to either accept a buyout and not finish the season or continue driving without a salary. He chose the latter in order to stay in the eyes of owners who might be searching for a driver next season. There are only a few open rides for 2010, which puts him in the position of looking for a part-time ride at the Cup level while trying to land a full-time deal in the Nationwide Series.
Race Preview — Event: AAA 400. Track: Dover International Speedway (1-mile concrete oval, 24-degrees of banking). Date: Sept. 27, 2:15 p.m. TV: ABC. Radio: MRN. Defending champ: Greg Biffle.