There is no doubting that consistency will still win the Sprint Cup title, but in racing like any other sport there is still no substitute for winning. Tony Stewart proved that on Sunday at Kansas Speedway when he won the Price Chopper 400.
Stewart entered the race trailing series leader Mark Martin by 106 points but the trip to victory lane cut that lead down to 67 points as the series heads to Auto Club Speedway for the running of the Pepsi 500 this weekend.
Even though Stewart was able to make such a huge cut into Martin’s lead with the win, he was only able to move up one spot in the standings to fourth. The reason for such a minor move can easily be traced to the final finishing order at Kansas City, where Chase drivers claimed a recordsetting nine of the top-10 spots. Only David Reutiman was able to break the stranglehold that the Chase drivers had on the finishing order as he brought his Toyota home in eighth.
Only three drivers dropped in the standings after Sunday and, as you would expect, it was the three drivers that finished outside of the top 10. Kurt Busch finished a very respectable 11th but with the competitive field of the Chase being so high, he lost 16 points to Martin and dropped one spot to fifth.
Ryan Newman and Brian Vickers took the biggest hits of the day as both drivers found themselves two spots lower in the standings after the race. Newman finished 22nd, two laps down, dropping him to ninth, while Vickers had engine problems which resulted in a 37th-place finish. He now sits in 12th, 250 points out of the lead with no real chance of winning the title.
The final results of the first three races clearly show the blueprint a driver must follow if he wants to be the champion after the final race of the Chase at Homestead Miami. Of course, winning is the easiest route to take and Jimmie Johnson has shown in past years that it is not unthinkable that a driver can get on a roll during this stretch run and win three or four races. That may or may not happen and with the level of competition that we have seen during the first three events, it may come down to the driver that is able to string together the most top-5 finishes.
That sounds like a tall order, but as you can see, when a driver like Carl Edwards finishes 10th at Kansas and still loses 12 points in the standings that just putting together top-10 finishes might not be good enough to get to the top.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who now sits in third, 51 points behind Martin, is following the line of thinking that posting top-5 finishes will have you battling for the title during the final Chase races. In the three races held so far during the championship round, he has posted a third at New Hampshire and fourth at both Dover and Kansas City. He has yet to win a race this season but he has turned up his performance during the Chase as he had only notched two top- 5’s during the first 26 races of the season.
CHASE NOTES: Jimmie Johnson has to be excited about going to California this weekend, as he has won the last two Pepsi 500’s. He is tied with Jeff Gordon on the all-time win list at the track with three, but joining them with wins are fellow Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. Even though there are seven Chase drivers with California wins, the numbers point to Johnson as being the favorite. In 13 starts at the track, Johnson has recorded nine top-10 finishes with eight of those being top 5’s. He also leads all active drivers with a 9.8 average starting position, but the most impressive stat of all is his 5.9 average finish.
PIT NOTES: Jimmie Johnson’s and Mark Martin’s cars will be making their second consecutive trip to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center for a closer inspection than is normally held after a race. After Dover, both Johnson’s and Martin’s car were found to be very close to the tolerance limits that NASCAR permits, and even though the cars didn’t break any rules, the governing body wanted to warn both teams just how close they were to crossing the line. NASCAR usually only takes the winner and one random car back for a closer look, so this action sends a strong signal to the rest of the field that ‘big brother’ has a close eye on them.
Race Preview — Event: Pepsi 500. Track: Auto Club Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Oct. 11, 3 p.m. TV: ABC. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jimmie Johnson.