NASCAR centerpiece: Chase report: A fast glance at Week 5

Rob Sneddon

What a difference a week makes. After placing all three of its Chase entries in the top seven at Kansas, including winner Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway had the worst week imaginable at Fontana. All three RFR Chase drivers finished 30th or worse – including Greg Biffle, who ended up 41st with a blown engine. Roush Fenway’s dramatic reversal of fortune is the main reason that this year’s Chase went from having seven drivers within 100 points of leader Jimmie Johnson to just three in the span of a single race.


The top four drivers in the Chase standings, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. But in terms of their performances during the Chase, they’re as close as can be. Harvick has recorded the highest average finish in the first four races, 7.5. The other three are just behind him, in a dead heat at 7.8. That Gordon (who is winless this season) trails Johnson (who has six wins) by 85 points illustrates just how important it is to lead laps – not just finish in the top 10.


The entire Roush Fenway organization, obviously. In addition to dreadful runs for Chasers Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, RFR also contributed to Kurt Busch’s precipitous decline. After crashing with David Ragan, the only RFR driver not in the Chase, Busch finished 21st and saw his deficit double, from 70 points to 140. It was also a bad day for Jeff Burton, who finished 23rd. And even Fontana winner Tony Stewart, who trails by 107, can be considered only the best bet among the long-shots at this point.


David Reutimann shook off the controversy surrounding his controversial payback wreck with Kyle Busch at Kansas to record his second top-10 run of the Chase. Joining him among the top 10 were Mark Martin, whose sixth-place finish was his best since Charlotte in May, and Kasey Kahne, who finished fourth in a lame-duck run for Richard Petty Motorsports. But the emerging coulda-woulda-shoulda story of this year’s Chase is Ryan Newman. After missing the Chase by one spot, Newman (who finished fifth at Fontana) has had an average finish of 7.5 in the first four Chase races. That ties him with Kevin Harvick for tops among all Cup drivers during that stretch.

Wait till next year?

At least one person thinks Kyle Busch is out of contention after his 35th-place finish at Fontana: Kyle Busch. “There you have it,” Busch said to his team over radio after engine blew with 45 laps to go. “It anyone wasn’t sure if the championship was over, it’s certainly over now.” Hard to argue with him. Busch is now 187 points out of first. And in year when even one bad day might cost a contender the title, Busch has now had two in a row.

The last word on Fontana

Jimmie Johnson: “If we can leave the racetrack with a top-three each week, we'll be where we want to at Homestead.”

NEXT RACE Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway

THE LOWDOWN The intermediate-track trifecta that began in Kansas and continued in California now concludes at the Sprint Cup series’ home track. Expect Chasers who have done well the last two weeks (Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon) to continue to perform well at Charlotte. The reverse is also true, which bodes ill for Jeff Burton and the brothers Busch. When the checkered flag falls next Saturday night, it will be close to midnight. And, more than likely, that will be an appropriate metaphor for at least half the Chase field.

ONE TO WATCH: Tony Stewart

WHY HE MATTERS: Fontana win keeps him alive.

WHAT HE SAYS: “As many points as we were out, we have the flexibility to just look forward and not worry.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He might worry about Charlotte; he hasn’t had a top-10 finish there since 2007.


2009 Jimmie Johnson

2008      Jeff Burton

2007      Jeff Gordon

2006      Kasey Kahne

2005      Jimmie Johnson

2004 Jimmie Johnson

ABOUT Charlotte

TRACK: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Concord, N.C.), 1.5-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 334 laps, 501 miles


Quote of note

“I really, really wanted to win just to set the record straight on what had happened with the last win.” – Fontana runner-up Clint Bowyer, referencing the controversial penalty that followed his New Hampshire win.

Where to watch

Saturday’s pre-race show on ABC starts at 7:00 p.m. EDT, followed by the race at 7:30.


Trial separation

No surprise that Jimmie Johnson has the highest average finish in the six previous Chase races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s won half of them. But five other current Chasers join Johnson in the top seven (see chart). So the 48 could see stiff competition Saturday night. At the other end of the scale, Charlotte looms as a make-or-break race for Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick both of whom have had an average finish outside the top 20 in previous Chase races at Charlotte.

Be careful what you wish for

Critics argue that the Chase format could be one reason that Sprint Cup TV ratings and attendance are down again in 2010. But it’s hard to imagine that the fan base would be any more energized had the previous format, which determined a champion through a season-long points race, still been in use. Under the old points system, Kevin Harvick would have had a 231-point lead over Jeff Gordon at this point, with Jimmie Johnson in third, 272 points back. And in the Nationwide series, which still uses the old points system, Brad Keselowski holds a 384-point edge over Carl Edwards for the top spot. Kyle Busch, who extended his single-season record for Nationwide wins with his 12th of the season last Saturday, is a distant third because he’s missed five starts.


By sweeping the top three spots at Fontana, Chevrolet clinched its eighth straight Sprint Cup manufacturers’ championship and 34th overall.


Average Chase race finish at Charlotte*


1            Jimmie Johnson            6                        4.2

2            Jeff Burton            6                        7.5

3            Clint Bowyer            4                          10.8

4            Kasey Kahne            6                        11.5

5            Tony Stewart            6                        13.2

6             Kurt Busch            6                        12.8

7            Jeff Gordon            6                        13.2

8             Mark Martin                    6                           15.0

9            Kyle Busch            6                           15.7

10            Bobby Labonte            6                        16.7

11            Martin Truex Jr.            4                          17.8

12            Ryan Newman            6                          18.0

13            Carl Edwards            5                        19.0

14            Greg Biffle                  6                        20.5

15            Matt Kenseth            6                        21.3

16            Jamie McMurray            5                        22.5

17            Denny Hamlin            5                          22.8

18            David Ragan                  3                        23.3

19            Dale Earnhardt Jr.            6                          23.8

20            Kevin Harvick            6                        24.5

*Active, full-time drivers with at least 2 Charlotte Chase races