Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 car) races side-by-side with fellow Chase for the Championship contender Ryan Newman last week in Kansas City. Johnson led the points standing for much of the season before a crash and engine problems in recent races dropped him to ninth in the season-ending title race.
Photo by Sherryl Creekmore/Nascar
CONCORD, N.C. When NASCAR dreamed up the Chase for the Championship, it envisioned 10 drivers running door-to-door, nose-to-tail in a made-for-television battle for the Nextel Cup Series championship.
Too bad the folks at "Survivor" beat them to the punch.
After four of 10 races, the Chase has done more to eliminate drivers from the championship picture than create a compelling storyline.
So far, Jeremy Mayfield has crashed twice, Jimmie Johnson has blown one engine and crashed, Ryan Newman has crashed twice, Elliott Sadler has crashed, Tony Stewart has crashed and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been docked 25 points for using profanity during an interview at Talladega, Ala.
Kurt Busch, the points leader, crashed last week at Kansas. But unlike the other competitors in the Chase, he didn't hit anything. His Ford spun coming off the second turn with 25 cars racing behind him. The car looped twice in the middle of the track as traffic went left and right to miss him by inches. He then rallied to finish sixth.
Problems have beset many of the 10 drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup during the first four races. A look at what has befallen them:
Jeremy Mayfield: Crashed twice
Ryan newman: Crashed twice
Jimmie Johnson: Engine trouble, crash
Tony Stewart: Crash
Elliott Sadler: Crash
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Lost 25 points for cursing in victory lane
"We avoided a big pitfall just trying to get our car to handle better," Busch said. "I believe (the Chase) combines a few elements that we're not used to with the way we've all watched NASCAR racing. There's a regular season of 26 races to position yourself and that's done by cool consistency. Now it's a matter of executing every race perfectly and being able to bounce back quickly from mistakes and not drag your feet on making decisions."
Of the 10 drivers who qualified to compete in the 10-race championship playoff, only four Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have avoided catastrophic problems like a crash or engine failure. But even that group hasn't escaped some problems.
Earnhardt Jr. had his penalty; Martin lost a possible top-five finish last week at Kansas for a late-race stop for gasoline; Gordon got shuffled in traffic at Talladega, Ala., because he was blocked from entering pit road.
Busch leads the standings by 29 points over Earnhardt Jr. heading into Saturday's UAW-GM 500 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. But he talks like he's only ahead by four points because he doesn't want Earnhardt Jr.'s penalty to be a factor in the championship.
"It feels very good to be able to be ahead by what I'm looking at is four points, but those four are just one position out there on the racetrack next week," Busch said. "We've got our work to do."
Gordon is third, 79 points behind.
Oddly enough, the old system NASCAR said didn't spark enough late-season interest would be more compelling than the quirky format now in place. If NASCAR still counted all 36 races instead of breaking it down into a 26-race regular season and a 10-race playoff, Earnhardt Jr. would be ahead of Gordon by only 24 points. Imagine what kind of interest a Gordon-Earnhardt Jr. battle would create.
Under the old system, Busch would be third, 208 points behind.
Instead of having 10 drivers involved in a wild finish, problems have essentially knocked most of the contenders out of the race.
Fourth-place Elliott Sadler is already 143 points behind, and three drivers Newman, Johnson and Mayfield are all more than 232 points behind. Johnson dominated the race at Lowe's in May and Newman holds the track record there. But no matter how well either finishes this Saturday, they still will be more than 100 points behind even if the leaders finally have their share of problems.
Gordon said the idea of racing nine other competitors in the final 10 races has created much more pressure than he expected.
"You're racing a lot more guys," he said. "You're not just racing one or two guys.
"I don't feel like we've really lived up to our full potential. I feel like we're better than this. I hope we start hitting it here real soon and when we do, we're definitely going to make a big difference in the points."
Busch said the Chase will be decided in the next couple races.
"I looked at the first three races as being the start for our competition for the Chase," he said. "Now we're in the meat of it with races four, five, six and then we've got the final three seven, eight and nine. Then you hope you're up by 150 points going into Miami (the final race) so you don't have to stress out too bad.
"It's going to be out of control. Each race that gets closer and closer to the end, we might see one guy eliminated; we might see two guys eliminated."
If not more.
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