Five races into The Chase to find the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and five races to go is the right time to have a mid-term look at how the twelve drivers are stacking up. Statistically any one of them can still win the title. Statistically. But realistically the bottom half dozen are 200 points or more in arrears and can only win by a combination of excellent results for one of them whilst the leading six have an appalling run of luck or misfortune.
The 2010 champion will most likely come from the top four, with the tied fifth and sixth placed men being outsiders. And that means we can look forward to either a five times champion or a first time winner. Jimmie Johnson's “drive for five” is steadily gaining strength whilst Jeff Gordon, whose fourth title was in 2001, is 156 points back. Between them sit Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick who both have fourteen career wins in Sprint Cup to date.
What is it about Jimmie Johnson that the fans hate him winning The Chase so many times? You can't blame JJ for that. Look at the story so far. 25th in the first race at Loudon after getting caught up in various spins and twirls mostly involving the brothers Busch. And since then, one win, one second place and two thirds. Now that is consistency, and consistency right at the very front. That is how you win championships. So, is he making the sport boring? No, he is not. The other drivers are making it dull. Ask your man to take the fight to the 48 car, then we might have a race to the title. Until then the drive for five remains alive.
Denny Hamlin is playing it smart this year. He's playing the conservative game and avoiding getting into potentially damaging scraps. Not the most exciting way but it leaves him just 41 points behind Johnson. The question is, has Hamlin got that bit extra in his tank to start finishing ahead of the 48? Apart from Loudon where Hamlin finished a close second to Clint Bowyer whilst Johnson was having his rough ride, the number 11 has trailed JJ home at every race. But that's not to ignore that he has twice fought his way from the back of the pack to get a good result. One truth about Hamlin, though, is that in 1501 laps since The Chase started he has led just one. You know, it's not impossible that with just one mishap to JJ and some consistent top five finishes by Hamlin he could become champion with just that one lap in the lead. Would that be preferable to another Johnson title?
Kevin Harvick is 77 points behind Johnson. His average finishing position in The Chase has been 7.6, just 0.8 behind JJ. His average start position, however, is easily the worst of all the Chase drivers, failing to qualify in the top twenty in any of the five races. This guy must love passing other cars so much because from these lowly starts he has finished in the top ten at four out of five races, the exception being 15th at the unloved Monster Mile at Dover. To those who claim that having The Chase is unfair to drivers like Harvick who led the championship table comfortably up to Richmond and then when the points were reset for the start of The Chase found himself back in third spot here is a little statistic which will put things in perspective. So far this season Happy Harvick has led 247 laps. Between them Johnson and Kyle Busch have led more than ten times that.
Jeff Gordon is something of an anomaly. He has the best average qualifying rating and has managed three top ten places in the first four races together with 11th at Dover, the only race in which he hasn't led a lap. And yet he has never looked like he could win any of them. With a less fraught race at Charlotte he would probably be forty points or so nearer the leader but still about 100 points behind. But that lap lost before figuring he needed to switch to the back-up battery and pit lane speeding penalties in two successive races have left him as a long shot for the title at best.
Even Kyle Busch's detractors would have to feel some sympathy for the man. Decent qualifying and top ten finishes in the first two races were wiped out when David Reutimann decided payback was warranted after Busch put him into the wall at Kansas. That Busch had hit him accidentally was of no concern to Reutimann, this was the third race in succession he'd been wrecked and he intended showing he wasn't taking any more. Fair enough, I suppose, but inevitably it raised the thorny question of non-Chase drivers interfering in the outcome of the championship. As it is, though, further events outside Busch's control affected his chances when his engine blew on lap 155 at Fontana. These days not a man to let his head drop he fought back with a second place and most laps led at Charlotte but with a deficit of 177 points he is almost one win behind Johnson and the outcome is properly out of his control now.
Tying on points with Busch is Tony Stewart, the “what if” man. A win at Fontana, fourth at Kansas are matched with three finishes in the twenties. And two of those must hurt so much for Smoke when he looks back at this year's Chase. The difference between first place and 24th at the opening race at Loudon turned out to be approximately three pints of fuel. For less than half a gallon 190 points became 96. Forward one week to Dover and, at the notoriously difficult pit lane entrance Stewart didn't even come close to getting his speed down low enough, earned himself a penalty and never recovered the lost ground. And typically the week following his excellent win in California Stewart's team just never got their act together at Charlotte and effectively ended their title hopes.
Carl Edwards is another man who ought to be closer to Johnson than he is with two top ten finishes plus an 11th and 12th but his chances dwindled away at Fontana when he came to a stop on the apron and needed a push into pit lane. All for a faulty rotor arm in the distributor. Two hundred points in arrears tells you all you need to know.
Another man who has experienced the highs and lows in quick succession is Greg Biffle. The winner at Kansas, his race the following week ended after just forty laps when his engine blew on a weekend that Roush Fenway Racing will be happy to forget. Biffle qualifies almost as well as Gordon but that doesn't really translate into good results with the one win, a fifth place and then nothing else inside the top fifteen.
Two words seem to sum up Kurt Busch's Chase. Crash damage. From the first race at Loudon, where he confessed to over-driving the car the whole race and taking out Joey Logano into the bargain, to Charlotte and a spin where he tagged the wall there haven't been many races where the number 2 car has finished without some body repairs needed. Granted at Fontana it was not Busch's fault as he was squeezed against the wall by David Ragan. A needless pit lane speeding penalty at Dover wrecked that race leaving Kansas as the only drama free race for him.
Jeff Burton was another fuel gambler at Loudon who got it wrong, finishing in fifteenth after running at the front for most of the race. He followed that with a fight through from 27th to the runner up spot at Dover. The next two races were both lost to an ill-handling car and at Charlotte he crept in to the top ten and then crept back out again. He and Johnson both drive Chevrolets. Johnson's handles well enough to get top three places, Burton's doesn't. One driver and his crew are on top of their game, the others aren't. Simple as.
Matt Kenseth. Good days, bad days and bad luck. Seventh place at Kansas and 6th behind his team mate at Charlotte are very good days. Braking woefully late for Dover's difficult pit lane entrance, missing it entirely, blowing the flat-spotted tyre which then ripped off the front wing was a bad day, an own goal if ever there was one. A wreck with Brad Keselowski at Loudon was unlucky as was his contribution to the Ford engine woes at Fontana, fading back as the race played out to 30th at the finish. Being 256 points behind Johnson seems harsh but is the reality and this year's chance is all but gone.
You have to feel for Clint Bowyer who started The Chase in twelfth and last place, soared to second in the standings at the end of the first race at Loudon and then straight back to last just three days later after irregularities were found with his number 33 car. The penalty of 150 points meant Bowyer was going to need some excellent results to stand any chance of winning and he just didn't get them apart from a second place at Fontana. The reality is without the penalty he would still be 150 points behind Johnson and a long shot at best for a title chance. To be fair to Bowyer he declared after the appeal process had been exhausted that he would dedicate the rest of The Chase to trying set-ups that would help his team mates, Harvick and Burton.
The next race is the half-mile track at Martinsville where Johnson and Hamlin have, between them, won the last eight races. Jeff Gordon has won here five times so shouldn't be ignored. And the following week sees the circus turn up at NASCAR's answer to a lottery, the Talladega Super Speedway. We will know after that whether the championship will be decided between two or three drivers or whether it will be more open and to be resolved at the final race at Homestead, Miami on November 21st. Watch this space.