It's looking more like the Chase for Survivorship

October 26th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: It's looking more like the Chase for Survivorship

It is important that you do these things in the specified order. Matt Kenseth called it sloppy. He could have added pitiful and pathetic, too.
None would be an exaggeration.
That's about the only way to sum up the performance of NASCAR's 10 Chase for the Nextel Cup drivers.
Sloppy, pitiful, pathetic and extraordinarily mediocre.
It's as if none of them wants to win the 2006 Nextel Cup championship. They all seem to be trying harder to give it away than win it.
It's the championship trophy no one seems to want.
Jeff Burton looked for a while like he wanted it more than anyone, winning the second Chase race at Dover and taking control of the points race.
After seemingly falling off the NASCAR map for four years, Burton had top 10 finishes in the first three Chase races and in four of the first five and appeared on the verge of sailing to his first series title.
Then, last week at Martinsville, his ship finally sank, or went up in smoke in the form of a blown engine. His 42nd-place finish dropped him to fifth in points, 48 out of the lead.
Now he knows how the other nine Chase drivers feel. Nearly every one has had something disastrous happen that seemingly knocked them out of championship contention -- for the moment, until the same fate befell someone else the next week.
Along with such widespread misfortune, to a man they have also been embarrassingly average. In six Chase races, only one of the 10 drivers -- Burton -- has four top-10 finishes, and he practically squandered them with last week's misfortune.
Five of the 10 have three top 10s each, but they have all also had at least one terrible finish and two subpar ones.
Take points leader Matt Kenseth. He has three top 10s -- 10th, 10th and fourth. His other three finishes: 23rd, 14th and 11th.
He's plodding his way right to the top, leading the Chase not because he has performed like a champion, but because he has stunk less than the other nine.
"It's been pretty sloppy so far," Kenseth admits. "There's been some guys who have run real good, but everybody's had a little bit of trouble. We probably had the least amount of trouble, but we just haven't run as good as we know we're capable of -- that we did the first two-thirds of the year."
Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson dominated the points race during the first 26 races, winning four races each and distancing themselves from the rest of the Chase contenders. Now they're just as mediocre as the rest.
Kevin Harvick rode a wave of momentum into the Chase, winning two consecutive races and three of six. Now he's average, too.
Despite their mediocrity, Kenseth, Harvick and Johnson hold the top three spots and are just 41 points apart. Rookie Denny Hamlin and Burton are fourth and fifth, 47 and 48 points back.
The way the Chase has gone so far, the one who struggles the least over the final four races will win.
What a way to win a championship?
Harvick says all 10 teams are just pushing a bit too hard.
"It's really a Catch-22 situation," he says. "Everybody is pushing everything to the extreme, whether it's engines, bodies, drivers. No matter what it is, you're pushing everything as hard as you can so you're walking that ultra-thin line of being good with an advantage of more horsepower or more downforce or whatever the case may be, being more aggressive on the race track.
"But when you push it too far, you wind up crashing the car or blowing an engine or whatever you're pushing it on, and everybody is pushing everything. It appears to be sloppy, but it's just a lot of us have had good fortunes through the year, and now it seems like some of those bad fortunes have caught up to us."
There's so much misfortune -- or mediocrity -- that Kenseth almost has mixed emotions about leading the Chase. Perhaps he's a bit ashamed.
"We haven't run good in this Chase," he admits. "We ran good at Dover, we ran good enough to win. We ran good at Talladega and, other that, we haven't looked like a championship team. So, I'm more than excited about the point lead, (but) I'm disappointed with the way (we have run). It's great to be the leader, but we've got to go start running good."
Kenseth, Harvick, Johnson or someone has four more races to get their act together and take control of the Chase.
If not, we will have a very mediocre -- and perhaps undeserving -- champion.
This week's prediction: Jimmie Johnson. Of the 10 Chase drivers, Johnson has come the closest to putting together a streak of strong performances the past few weeks. He dominated the race at Kansas and looked like he might win before running out of gas. He was going for the win at Talladega when his teammate wrecked him. He finished second at Charlotte, then won at Martinsville. So Johnson could have four consecutive victories right now and a firm grasp on the points lead. He's no stranger to hot streaks in the Chase, having won four of six Chase races just two years ago. Now is the perfect time to put together another one. It could lead him to his first championship.
Keep an eye on: Kasey Kahne. He could flat out steal this championship. Thanks to a terrible start, he is 99 points behind in eighth. But he has three consecutive top 10 finishes, including a win at Charlotte and second at Talladega. And he, too, could continue his hot streak. He won at Atlanta and Texas -- the next two races -- early this year and has been hard to beat on 1.5-mile tracks, which make up three of the final four races. He could win again at Atlanta, and don't count him out of the Chase just yet.
Also keep an eye on: Matt Kenseth. Kenseth was strong earlier this year on big tracks, winning at California and Michigan. He's also typically very consistent. And having won a championship, don't look for him to wilt under the pressure. With a 36-point lead, he could be hard to beat.
Dark horse: Mark Martin. He'll be a dark horse until he retires, which will be soon. Martin is 96 points out of the lead, but he runs good at each of the final four tracks. He's a long shot, but stranger things have happened, many of them this season. A typically strong run at Atlanta could pull him right back into contention.

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