When the Chase format was introduced in 2004, NASCAR’s goal was to give the fans two exciting point chases in the same season. The first would be the drivers competing just to make it into the Chase field after the first 26 races of the season. There has been some tight competition over the years for one of the 12 slots going into the final race at Richmond before the Chase field has been set, but most of the suspense on which drivers would go on to race for the title has long disappeared.
Such was the case once again on Saturday when there was still a spot up for grabs, but that spot was a very long shot that had to see the all the stars, moon and sun line up just right before it could become a reality. Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were the two that entered Saturday night’s short track battle with a chance of dropping out of the elite 12, but both drivers easily held on to their spot, taking away any drama for the final transfer spot.
The 12 drivers and the organizations they represent are no strangers to being in a position to run for the title, as there are five former champions in the field and four organizations that have fielded championship teams. This season there will be a total of six organizations represented in the Chase as Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing will join Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing in the 12 team, 10-race sprint to the championship.
Penske and Stewart-Haas will each have one driver in the field as Kurt Busch will represent Penske and Tony Stewart will race for the team in which he also has an ownership interest. Those two teams will be against teammates as the rest of the Chase field will each have a teammate running.
Richard Childress Racing put three teams in the field as Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer all drove their way into the Chase. That is a huge turnaround from last year when Childress failed to get a team into the championship round.
Childress will be joined by Roush-Fenway Racing as the only other operation to have three drivers in the 12-man field. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth will have the opportunity to bring Jack Roush his third-ever Sprint Cup title.
Joe Gibbs Racing will have two drivers in the field with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch doesn’t have a great history of racing in the Chase as his last three efforts have found him falling out of contention very early in the 10- race span. That is all history and all this driver needs is some good luck to start with as there is defi- nitely no shortage of talent on his part. His three-peat at Bristol last month proved that his skill level behind the wheel of a racecar is on par with any driver in the series.
Denny Hamlin will be riding a ton of momentum when the Chase starts this Sunday. His win at Richmond gave him the top seed in the championship round that will include a 10-point lead over second-place Jimmie Johnson, thanks to a series leading six wins.
Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon will be looking for championship number 10 for Hendrick’s as both of these drivers have four titles of their own to go along with one by Terry Labonte. All eyes will be on Johnson, who will be going for his fifth consecutive title. He has won five races this season while Gordon has yet to win, but Gordon has been leading races and in contention for several wins this season.
Hamlin may be starting the Chase at the top, but you can’t help but think that the title is still Johnson’s to lose. His team has been through both the pressure of winning a title and the evergrowing pressure of defending it the following year. It will be business as usual for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire #48 team while the rest of the field may find itself in some unchartered territory between now and Homestead-Miami in November.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1-mile oval, variable banking of 2 & 7 degrees in turns)
September 19, 1 p.m. TV:
PRN Defending champion: