When Denny Hamlin took Richmond’s checkered flag on Saturday night, the 12-man field that will now go on to race for the championship was finally set.
It took every lap of the first 26 races of the season to set the field as Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch took their battle for the final transfer spot all the way to the white flag lap on Saturday night.
Vickers finished two spots behind Busch in seventh place, but that was good enough to put the Toyota driver safely in the Chase field by a scant eight points over Busch. Both of those drivers entered the night just outside of the top 12 but quickly found themselves in a fight for the last spot as Matt Kenseth, who entered the night in 12th, started struggling as soon as the green flag waved to begin the race.
Kenseth, who won the series title in 2003, missed being in the Chase field for the first time since its inception in the 2004 season. He will always have the distinction of being the last champion crowned under the old ‘classic’ point system, and his runaway title run in ’03 has always been considered one of the reasons behind NASCAR switching to the Chase format.
The Chase has once again raised the excitement level of the sport at just right time when it has to start going up against football. There is no arguing that the first 26 races on the schedule are made more important by using the Chase format as it is very plain to see for both drivers and fans that points earned as far back as Daytona and California in February are as important as those earned Saturday night at Richmond.
The points will now be reset for the 12 drivers moving into the 10- race championship portion of the schedule, and in some ways it doesn’t seem right, especially for those drivers that have really put together the kind of year that has separated them from all but a few other drivers.
Tony Stewart ended up on top of the points after Richmond with a very commanding 179-point lead over second-place Jeff Gordon and a 272-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in third. Looking further at Stewart’s domination over the first 26 races of the season shows him having a 515- point lead over sixth-place driver Mark Martin, but look how things turn around as the series begins the final 10-race stretch of the season.
The Chase rules state that the 12 drivers moving into the championship round will all have their point total reset to 5,000. A bonus system is also used for the Chase which gives a driver 10 extra points for every trip to victory lane.
This bonus system makes Mark Martin the leader going into the first stop of the Chase at New Hampshire as he has four wins on the season, bringing his point total to 5,040 which is 10 better than Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, who both have three wins which puts their beginning total at 5,030. Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne start with 5,020 points followed by Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers with one victory each that will put their starting totals at 5,010.
Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle round out the Chase field with the minimum 5,000 points as all four drivers failed to win a race. Even without a win on the season, these four drivers find themselves only 40 points out of the top spot and in a great position to win the title.
There will be no bonus points awarded for wins during the final 10 races and the awarding of race points will be the same as that used for the first 26 races including the five bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps during the race. This point system has always rewarded consistency over the course of the season and the same will be true over the final 10-race stretch.
The season is now nothing more than a 10-race sprint to the finish that has a history of quickly removing drivers from contention. You must run up front and compete for wins each week as the short schedule and stiff competition seldom give a driver the opportunity to overcome a bad race or two!
Race Preview — Event : Sylvania 300. Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1-mile oval, variable banking of 2 & 7 degrees). Date: Sept. 20, 2:15 p.m. TV: ABC. Radio: PRN. Defending Champion: Greg Biffle.