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Voice of Vito: Charting NASCAR’s Championship Chase – Who’s In, Who’s Out… & What’s It All About, Anyway?

The last two weeks have certainly done their part in jumbling up the point standings, as races influenced by, um, extenuating circumstances have given us a look at how the Chase field may shake out as we get closer to that decisive 26th race at Richmond. Last week at Indianapolis, it was the tires that were the culprit, with the backstretch looking more like Main Street in Fallujah than the most hallowed motor racing venue in the world.

Then at Pocono, weather and fuel were the decisive factors of the 500-mile race, one that endured a brief red-flag period before racing resumed and fuel mileage assured a roll the dice, take your chances ending that had few winners and far bigger losers towards the front of the pack.

In each case, a driver within the top five in points came out the victor, all but securing his position in the field while leaving those scrambling for a Chase spot, well, still scrambling.

But while those men further down the standings are battling for a spot to simply make the playoffs, there’s no doubting the semi-equal ground each man will stand on once he gets there. Because of that, one can break the current 14 championship contenders down into three distinct groups, each of whom has drivers who can break out and become a serious title threat all the way through Homestead in November. Out of each group, there seems to be a sole driver who seems primed to separate themselves from the rest of the party and make a move for title contention.

Let’s take a look at how they stack up with one another:

Standin’ On Top of the World – These are our highest achievers, and it’s hard not to be proud of exactly all they’ve accomplished by this point in the year. A suddenly slumping Kyle Busch’s 34th-place finish Sunday was not indicative of the effort put forth by the No. 18 team, nor was the speed the car had showed towards the end of the Pocono race, either. Although street-going Toyotas are known for fuel economy, Busch was forced to pit with two laps remaining, which resulted in his points lead of 253 markers over Dale Earnhardt Jr. being whittled down to 176.

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But with the seeding system using wins to determine the points spread once the Chase begins, Busch’s actual lead is somewhat irrelevant at this point. What is of importance is that instead, Carl Edwards earned his fourth win of the season at Pocono this Sunday. In the process, he gained another 10 points on Busch and, assuming neither one fails to win another race between now and Richmond, he stands to be but 40 points behind the Candy Coated Kid come Chase time.

Earnhardt Jr., currently second in the standings, continues to run up front, but just missed the top 10 at both Indy and Pocono to continue what’s been a midseason mini-slump. He will return to the scene of his first win in two years at Michigan International Speedway in two weeks with the hopes of turning things around; but remember, that win was solved by fortuitous fuel mileage… not by who had the fastest car.

But of the four drivers in this group, the one that has been steadily improving is Jimmie Johnson, who has top-three finishes – a first, second and third – in the last three races. If the past two seasons are any indication, a hot No. 48 bunch could spell doom for the remainder of the field, regardless of who was the best team throughout the first 26 events.

The bottom line is that all eyes are on Busch and Edwards as the Chase looms; however, if past history is any INDYcation (mmpppff…), I’m looking elsewhere.

Advantage: Johnson
Trailing Behind: Kyle Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards

Stuck in the Middle With You – This group is a rather odd lot. The two Jeffs – Burton and Gordon – have not run poorly, but aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either with their performances. Burton has been a model of quiet consistency, and was able to snatch a win at Bristol when everyone decided to start wrecking each other and/or run out of gas in the last few laps back in March.

The four-time champ Gordon has also performed admirably, but has not shown the speed needed to be a contender for victory lane; he’s currently winless through 21 races so far this season. If Johnson’s recent run of success can rub off, though, Gordon has the smarts to make a run.

Greg Biffle has also shown flashes of brilliance, but is also a magnet for pit-road foils and cars running into him – while Kasey Kahne’s season is a microcosm of his roller-coaster career to date. Kahne has two wins in 2008, but also has eight finishes of 22nd or worse to make his Chase bid as unpredictable as what Rusty Wallace will say to defame Ryan Newman next.

Biffle is the most susceptible to suffering a meltdown of Chernobyl proportions – he could always rant to the Goodyear Tires – but at the same time, he also could very well go on a three-race win streak without so much as a gentle push.

As you can see, it’s a land where no one is safe, but everyone is streaky. Still, like the Marine Scout Sniper mantra of “slow and smooth… smooth is fast,” you’d have to think the best bet out of this group is clearly the four-time champ.

Advantage: Gordon
Trailing Behind: Burton, Biffle, Kahne

Down in a Hole: This one’s an eclectic collection of competitors, whose performance has been highlighted by wilder mood swings and more multiple personalities than Britney Spears and Tatum O’Neal on a blind date with Mike Tyson and Herschel Walker.

When you look at the top of this group’s roster, you’ll see exactly the type of unsettling behavior you might fear. There’s Tony Stewart, with luck so rotten, the next time you check the box score of a race it’s likely to read, “42nd: Stewart –DNF – Reason: Anvil.” Take away races in which Stewart was erased from races not of his doing, and he’s knocking on the foam door padding of his teammate in the No. 18 car. The same could be said for Denny Hamlin, another Gibbs driver who, although he has been a little short on speed, has been a lot short on good fortune.

One week, Kevin Harvick looks like he’s out to lunch, driving the R&D entry composed of Regan Smith’s leftovers, and the next he’s running up front – flying under the radar like teammate Burton. And although he sits 11th in the points standings after a strong top five at Pocono, it’s still anyone’s guess which No. 29 team will show up on any given weekend. Ditto for his teammate, 2007 Chase Cinderella Clint Bowyer, who struggles to simply stay on the radar screen during a race about big stars and even bigger moves out the door.

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Who’s the best wheelman of this bunch? I’m stumped; take your pick. Stewart could be considered a lame-duck driver, but with his desire to win and the bond between he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, don’t count on them laying down anytime soon. This could be the most dangerous team for this year’s title not currently listed in the top five in points, as Smoke has nothing to lose and everything to gain from an extended championship run. If the crew rallies behind him, Stewart could very well conclude his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing on top… and on his terms.

Advantage: Stewart
Trailing Behind: Harvick, Hamlin, Bowyer

I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me – These are the drivers currently on the outside looking in – and who will provide much of the entertainment during the coming five weeks of regular-season racing. This year, there are just two drivers in legitimate contention to make the 12th and final position to run for the roses. Teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan are 13th and 14th, respectively, while 2008 Daytona 500 winner Newman and 2003 Nationwide Series champion Brian Vickers are 15th and 16th.

But with Newman and Vickers 173 and 203 points out of 12th, the real battle is between Kenseth and Ragan to knock someone off that’s ahead of them. Kenseth, the last driver to win what some would call the “real” championship under the old points system in 2003, has made the Chase every year since its inception.

But while most would give the nod to Kenseth, I’m going to buck that trend and go with the youngster that’s impressed in just his sophomore season on tour. Ragan has done an admirable job in his Jimmy Fennig-prepared Ford Fusions this season, especially when you consider the avalanche of criticism and harsh scrutiny he was forced to endure after a trying freshman campaign. As such, it would be fitting to see David slay Goliath and contend for a championship in the iconic (or in this case, ironic) No. 6 car.

Advantage: Ragan

As we get closer to the Chase, I am still conflicted over what has become the manner in which we crown a new champion. In years past, the championship for NASCAR’s premier division was decided by a 10-month battle royale, contested at 200 mph on mammoth expanses of banked asphalt, short tracks and bullrings, road courses and the intermediate superspeedways that are now the bread and butter of the NASCAR schedule.

Yet here we are, but five races away from deciding who makes the cut and who doesn’t; why then would drivers nearly 600 points in arrears suddenly be in the conversation after Richmond in a month’s time? By the time we get to that all-important race, the 12th-place driver could easily be 700 points behind the points leader. How exactly does being 700 points out of first place shout to the world “championship material?”

So, regardless of the eventual outcome, this concept will all be fodder for discussion in the coming weeks as Silly Season winds down and The Chase for the Dance… to the Cup… or whatever we’re calling it now finally begins. It may not be what you’re used to, but it is something.

What exactly that something is, I have yet to determine. But it’s coming – whether we like it or not – so sit back, relax, pick a favorite and watch it all unfold.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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