For the fourth straight year the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup has started off in exactly the same manner with one of the Chase drivers claiming a win in the opening race of the 10- race playoff round. Ironically, this year’s first race winner not only claimed the first win of the Chase, it was also his first win of the season.
Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer made it into the 12- man Chase as the final driver, but after a dominating win Sunday at New Hampshire he finds himself heading to round two of the Chase in fourth place, only 15 points behind leader Jimmy Johnson. Johnson is actually tied for the lead with teammate Jeff Gordon but NASCAR uses the number of wins as a tie-breaker, which gives Johnson the top spot because of his six wins compared to Gordon’s four.
Bowyer started the day 60 points behind Johnson as the field was seeded according to the number of wins each driver accumulated during the 26-race stretch leading up to the Chase. Johnson’s six wins not only gave him the top seed with a 60-point lead over Bowyer, it once again raised questions about the “regular” season point leader not being rewarded for the year he had leading up to the Chase.
Gordon was the class of the regular season as he enjoyed more than a 300-point lead after the Richmond race, but as soon as those results were made official the points were reset and Gordon only had the 40-bonus points he received for his wins to show for his remarkable regular season. The argument could easily be made that if the points were not reset Gordon would be in a very advantageous spot to collect his fifth championship trophy.
NASCAR acknowledged over the weekend that it was taking a look at ways to recognize the leader in points before the start of the Chase. Some of the ways might be the addition of some bonus points to begin the Chase, additional prize money or a special trophy for winning the regular season. If you asked the drivers, they would all say that they have enough trophies and money but they sure would like to see some bonus points for leading. I don’t know what would be the right amount but I do know if Jeff Gordon had received just one bonus point for winning the regular season, he would now be in sole possession of first place.
Chase notes: Oftentimes the media will take a closer look at those near the bottom of the Chase than those fighting for the top spot in an attempt to try and write off a driver. That may be harder to do than predicting the winner and all you have to do is take a look back at the 2006 Chase.
Eventual champion Jimmy Johnson began the Chase last year with engine problems at New Hampshire that saw him limp into Dover in ninth place, 139 points out of the lead. His problems continued over the first half of the Chase as he dropped as low as 165 points out of the top spot after a 14th place finish at Kansas.
Johnson’s comeback is good news for Kurt Busch, as he entered this year’s Chase in fifth place as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit by successfully playing catch-up over the last quarter of the regular season. Busch had a dismal 25th-place finish on Sunday that dropped him down to the 12th slot, 102, points out of the top position.
Streak driver Tony Stewart definitely got off to the kind of start that he hopes could result in his third series title. The Joe Gibbs driver started third and finished third to hold on to his thirdplace position in the Chase. He trails Johnson and Gordon by just 10 points and says that wasn’t bad for the kind of week he and the rest of his fellow Chase drivers had to endure. They were in Talladega for two days of testing the Car of Tomorrow for the fourth and final restrictor plate race of the season at the Alabama track followed by two days of media obligations in New York City.
To make matters worse, according to Stewart, they had to even wear a suit for some of their New York appearances! Poor Tony, what a way to make a living.
Race Preview – Event: Dodge Dealers 400. Track: Dover International Speedway (1- mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Sept. 23, 1:30 p.m. TV: ABC. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jeff Burton.