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With Field Set, NASCAR's Chase Gets Serious

After 26 races, Kenseth is the leader among 10 drivers who have 10 events left to determine the Nextel Cup champion for 2006.

September 15, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Let the Chase begin.

The 10-driver field is set for NASCAR's "Chase for the Nextel Cup" to determine this year's champion over the last 10 races of the season. It starts with Sunday's Sylvania 300 at the 1.06-mile New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

The Chase also includes stops in Charlotte, N.C.; Talladega, Ala., and Atlanta. The penultimate race is in Phoenix, and the season finale is Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

But the reigning champion, Tony Stewart, won't be defending his title. An 18th-place finish at last Saturday's race in Richmond, Va., wasn't enough to keep the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on the final roster.

Most of stock car racing's other big stars are in the hunt, though, along with one rookie.

Here's a look at how they stack up going into the chase, in the order of their standings in the points after the first 26 races:

* Matt Kenseth -- Tough to bet against. Kenseth, 34, won the title in 2003, the last year before the Chase was implemented, and is strong again this year. The Roush Racing driver has driven his No. 17 Ford Fusion to victory circle four times, including consecutive wins last month at Michigan International and Bristol, Tenn., and he has 13 top-five finishes overall.

* Jimmie Johnson -- A model of consistency in his No. 48 Chevrolet and hungry for his first Cup after four years of coming close. The El Cajon driver for Hendrick Motorsports led the points for most of this year, has four wins and eight top-five finishes. Johnson, who celebrates his 31st birthday Sunday, also has one of the smartest crew chiefs in the business, Chad Knaus.

* Kevin Harvick -- The Bakersfield driver is suddenly a leading contender, after posting his third win of the year at Richmond last week for Richard Childress Racing. Harvick, 30, also has 11 top-five finishes in his No. 29 Chevy, and has dominated the Busch series this year. Both he and Johnson finished all 26 Cup races this season.

* Kyle Busch -- Young and fearless, the second-year Las Vegas driver could well snatch the championship if he keeps his emotions in check inside his No. 5 Hendrick Chevy. Busch, 21, has won only once this year, but guess where it was: New Hampshire, in July. Another win there Sunday could give him early momentum in the Chase.

* Denny Hamlin -- The only rookie in the Chase, Hamlin, 25, seems oblivious to the pressure and keeps pushing his No. 11 Chevrolet to the front. No doubt he also wishes Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania were part of the Chase -- he won both races there this year from the pole. The Joe Gibbs driver has 13 top-10 finishes.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- His legion of fans can exhale now that Junior, who missed the Chase last year, has another shot at his first championship. But Earnhardt, 31, has to avoid a repeat of the July slump that left him with two last-place finishes -- one of them at New Hampshire -- and nearly left his red No. 8 Chevy out of the Chase yet again.

* Mark Martin -- The sentimental favorite, Martin has never won a title during his 24 years in the Cup series and this might be his last full season. The 47-year-old Roush driver also doesn't have a win this year, but Martin does have 12 top-10 finishes and is a former winner at Dover, Del., Charlotte, Martinsville, Va., and Texas, all stops during the Chase. The will is there, but is the equipment inside Martin's No. 6 Ford?

* Jeff Burton -- Speaking of going winless, the veteran driver of the No. 31 Childress Chevy hasn't won a Cup race in nearly five years, so he surprised more than a few NASCAR fans by making the Chase. But Burton, 39, finished in the top-10 in 15 races -- or more than half the time -- and the Virginian won four poles.

* Jeff Gordon -- With four championship trophies already on his shelf, the Vallejo, Calif., native and his No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet can never be counted out. Gordon, 35, has two wins this year, 10 top-five finishes and could bolt quickly from the gate at New Hampshire. He has won three times there.

* Kasey Kahne -- For many, it's only fitting that Kahne, 26, squeezed into the Chase at Richmond last week and displaced Stewart. After all, the Evernham Motorsports driver leads the series with five wins this year, including a victory at California Speedway two weeks ago. With the pressure of making the Chase off his shoulders, Kahne now might just drive the No. 9 Dodge away with the Cup.

* The wild card -- Talladega Superspeedway. Before any of the drivers can win the title, they have to deal with the often chaotic racing at Talladega, one of two restrictor-plate tracks, along with Daytona International Speedway.

Talladega is a 2.66-mile oval where the cars race in freight-train-like packs, and where multi-car wrecks are the norm. At the first Talladega race this year, in April, there were 55 lead changes among 22 drivers.

Johnson won the April race, yet said this week, "If there is one wild card or a race to worry about [during the Chase], it would be Talladega," on Oct. 8.

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