As fall nears and a brisk chill begins to fill the air, the battle for the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship is just starting to heat up. Just one race into the 10-race Chase, the points standings have already jumbled up faster than the leaves can start to change colors. With the driver points for the top 10 reset so that everyone was separated by just five points, Sunday’s race caused each Chaser to leave in a different position in the points standings than where they started.
For some teams, that was good news; they withstood the first test of the championship battle and came out of Sunday’s race intact. For others, though, the day turned out to be anything but sunny, and they now find themselves in jeopardy of staring at an empty trophy case far earlier than they should be.
So, which drivers are still feeling the heat of summer after race number one, and which ones are heading towards an early winter chill? Read this week’s Starr Report to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick kicked off the Chase in style with a win at Loudon on Sunday, his second straight and third in the last six races. The win also gave him the Nextel Cup points lead for the first time in his career, providing a 35-point cushion over second-place Denny Hamlin heading into Dover this weekend. Normally, Dover isn’t a track that Harvick runs well at; however, he was third there in June, and with their current momentum, you can’t count the No. 29 team out anywhere.
Hamlin: Rookies are supposed to falter a bit when they find themselves under pressure. This year, Hamlin has shown he’s not your average rookie. He qualified well at Loudon and backed it up with a fourth-place finish to sneak into second in the standings. The FedEx team has been getting it done with consistency week in and week out. New Hampshire was his eighth top 10 in the last nine races and his series-leading 19th straight top 20, which included an 11th-place run at Dover in June.
Mark Martin: Martin raced from his 26th starting position on Sunday to finish 11th, good enough to move him up one place in the standings to sixth. Following the race, he was disappointed he couldn’t finish a bit better, but had a smile on his face when he was asked about the upcoming race. That’s because Martin has found a way to tame the Monster Mile at Dover. He had four straight top fives there before finishing ninth earlier this season. This weekend is a great opportunity for Martin to heat up in his bid for his first championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After looking like a contender for a top-five or top-10 finish early in the race, Dale Jr. ended the day where he started, 13th place. That means that in the past five races, Junior has three top 10s, but he has finishes of 17th and 13th during the month of September. He was obviously frustrated after Loudon, meaning this week’s race can really set the tone for his Chase bid. Junior scored a top 10 at Dover in June, but that was only the third time he had accomplished that in the last eight races there.
Jeff Gordon: By scoring a third-place finish, Gordon made the largest move up the standings this week. Now fourth in the standings, he has scored top fives in four of the past five races. The next hurdle in his Drive for Five comes at Dover, a track that has been feast or famine for the No. 24 team in the last eight races. He was 12th in June, but in the seven races prior had three top fives to go with four finishes of 36th or worse, leaving many to wonder which team will show up this Sunday.
Jeff Burton: A late-race call to stay out on the track could have been the difference between Burton scoring a top five and a top 10 Sunday. In the final two laps of the race, he lost two positions on old tires and ended the day in seventh after running stronger most of the day. The finish was good enough to bump him up to fifth in the standings, but you get the feeling that Burton is going to have to break through and finally win a race in these last nine weeks if he wants to make a serious bid for the title.
Matt Kenseth: Matt put in a hard day at the office on Sunday. After starting 25th, moving up through traffic can be tough enough; toss in brake problems, and his 10th-place finish becomes all the more impressive under the circumstances. The recurring brake issue for the DeWalt team could become a factor again in the Chase if they can’t get a handle on it.
In the meantime, this week’s race at Dover will give them a test to see if they have a fix in place for their Chase performance thus far; Kenseth won here in June, but he has finished 33rd and 35th in the last two fall races. The way the team has been finishing races lately, they shouldn’t fall back into that pattern, but it’s certainly a hurdle the No. 17 bunch must overcome.
Kyle Busch: Coming into New Hampshire with three straight top 10s and an impressive track record, many people (myself included) thought Busch could gain some momentum early on in the Chase. By the end of the day, the opposite happened. Two wrecks, one on lap 3 and one on lap 199, dropped him to a 38th-place finish, putting him 10th in the standings and 146 points behind Harvick. While he’s certainly down, don’t count Busch out; he can easily warm up this weekend at Dover, a track where he’s never finished outside the top five.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne’s 16th-place finish normally wouldn’t have moved him up in the standings, but thanks to two fellow Chasers having trouble, he finds himself in eighth place. It was a hard fought finish, too, as a flat tire put him two laps down early, a problem he battled back from fairly successfully. Kahne will need that same kind of determination at Dover this Sunday. His seventh-place finish in June is his only top 10 there, prior to that, his average finish was 28.5. It could be a tough two weeks for the driver who claimed the final Chase position.
Jimmie Johnson: Losing a cylinder early in the race ended Johnson’s hopes for a great start to the Chase. Contact with Sterling Marlin on lap 89 sent his Lowe’s Chevrolet head on into the turn 2 wall, and crushed his hopes for a decent start in this year’s championship battle. Johnson fell seven spots in the standings from second to ninth after finishing 68 laps down in 39th after the wreck, his worst finish of the season.
In the last six races, he now has just one top-10 finish, which isn’t the sign of a team hitting the Chase on a high note. One bright spot is the upcoming trip to Dover where he has won three times, including this race last year.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
Tony Stewart almost played the role of spoiler on Sunday at Loudon, but his second-place finish was good enough to extend his lead in the fight for 11th place. With mediocre finishes by Greg Biffle (14th) and Carl Edwards (18th), Stewart carries a 313-point lead over Biffle with nine races remaining.
Up next is the series’ second visit of the season to the Monster Mile of Dover. Can Harvick continue his hot streak and slay the beast that is the 1-mile concrete oval, or will another driver step up and cut both back down to size? Can Johnson stop the chill that is the past month of his season, warming up at a track that’s treated him well in the past? We’ll just have to wait and see on Sunday to find out whether this week’s hottest driver can keep up the pace or if the coolest driver can melt the ice.
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