Loudon II: Series round 27 preview

* This Chase Called 'Most Competitive Ever' * It Pays To Get Off To A Good Start In New Hampshire * Johnson's Chase Record More Important Than Season Stats Hamlin Holds No. 1 Seed In Chase For NASCAR Sprint CupThe field is set. The 2010 Chase...

* This Chase Called 'Most Competitive Ever'
* It Pays To Get Off To A Good Start In New Hampshire
* Johnson's Chase Record More Important Than Season Stats

Hamlin Holds No. 1 Seed In Chase For NASCAR Sprint CupThe field is set. The 2010 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup officially gets underway Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Small Business Toyota) enters the 10-race competition as the No. 1 seed, based on his six regular season victories including last Saturday's Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Hamlin has a 10-point lead over four-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (No 48 Lowe's/Johns Manville Chevrolet). Johnson will be making his seventh Chase appearance -- the only driver to do so since the format was introduced in 2004.

With a combined 11 victories, the pair won more than 40% of the 26 races leading up to the Chase cut-off.

Their fellow competitors, however, say neither should be considered prohibitive favorites using such terms as "most competitive Chase ever" and "the championship is wide open."

"I can't pick a favorite as a fan looking at it and I don't think you can say which rivalries are going to build, said Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford). "I think this is going to be the best Chase we ever had."

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), who won his second NASCAR Sprint Cup title under the Chase format in 2005, agrees. "There are guys who started off the year that have kind of flattened out a little bit and there are guys who had a weak start to the year that are gaining momentum," said Stewart, perhaps referring to himself in the latter category.

Stewart starts the Chase seeded sixth based upon his recent victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Stewart is one of just three drivers to win a title under the current format. All -- Stewart, Johnson and Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) -- qualified for this year's Chase.

Two more NASCAR Sprint Cup champions, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Facebook Chevrolet) and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford), also are part of the elite field of 12 comprising the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kenseth was the last to win the championship under the total points format in 2003. Gordon's last of four titles came in 2001.

Both were winless during the regular season. Each starts 60 points behind Hamlin.

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) led the standings from the 10th race of the season but finds himself in an unfamiliar position entering the Chase: No. 3 seeded, 30 points behind Hamlin.

Media Nail Most Chase Qualifiers Excepting RCR 'Surprise'

Media members who predicted the outcome of the 2010 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in this year's preseason poll batted a gaudy .750. They correctly predicted nine of the 12 drivers who will battle for this year's championship beginning Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway including top seed Denny Hamlin.

And the three competitors who didn't make the poll but are very much in the hunt for the championship?

Each of the Richard Childress Racing drivers: Kevin Harvick, the regular season points leader and No. 3 Chase seed; Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.

The exclusion back in February underscores the significant improvements made at RCR.

Picked to make the Chase but failing to qualify were Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet), the 2009 runner-up finisher; Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing With Felix Sabates Chevrolet) and Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet).

In The Loop: Ride The Wave: Momentum Swings For These Chasers

Momentum is an interesting phenomenon in NASCAR, if it exists at all.

Some believe it does.

Some don't. Either way, that wave can carry a driver straight to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship 10 weeks from now. Or it can come to a screeching halt at any moment.

Here are a few drivers who have momentum, and some who do not -- and what the statistics say the future holds for each:

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson, despite all his bad finishes, had the top Driver Rating (106.7) among Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors during the Race to the Chase. That's a surprising stat, considering half of his Race to the Chase finishes were outside the top 20. His stats at the upcoming tracks are even more impressive, making him the likely favorite for yet another championship. At the 10 tracks comprising the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Johnson has 32 wins, a Driver Rating of 111.0 and an Average Running Position of 9.1.

Carl Edwards: Scoring more points than any other driver during the last 10 races, Edwards also ranked second among Chasers in Driver Rating (101.4) during the Race to the Chase. He finished outside the top 10 twice in the last 10 events. Unfortunately, one of those instances was New Hampshire, site of the first Chase race. His numbers at the Chase tracks are solid, but middle of the road compared to other championship hopefuls: a Driver Rating of 91.2 and an Average Running Position of 14.7. Edwards has especially struggled at those tracks this year. In the eight 2010 races held at Chase tracks, Edwards has a Driver Rating of 77.5 and an average finish of 15.8, which ranks ninth among the top 12.

Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has the least momentum of any Chase driver, posting a Driver Rating of just 81.4 during the Race to the Chase. His finishes were consistently solid. He only had two top 10s, but no finishes outside the top 20. Kenseth, one of four drivers to make at least six Chases, has playoff experience. Over the next 10 tracks, he has a Driver Rating of 92.2 and eight wins.

Kyle Busch: His Driver Rating over the last 10 events was 97.2, and his best might be on deck. During the eight previous races held on Chase tracks this season, Busch owns the best average finish: 8.9. He's the only Chase driver who averaged a top-10 finish on those tracks.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway: 11 Consecutive Different Winners and Counting

Each of the 12 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers can find a bit of good news heading for Sunday's Sylvania 300.

Ten have at least one New Hampshire Motor Speedway victory on their resumes, led by Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) with four wins. Jimmie Johnson has won three times, including June's stop at the 1.058-mile flat oval.

Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon also are three-time winners. Tony Stewart has won twice.

In fact, the only "winless" Chase drivers in New Hampshire are Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, whose best finishes are seconds. But that isn't completely bad news as both attempt to shave 60-point championship deficits.

There have been 11 consecutive different winners at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It certainly wouldn't be a stretch to consider either a candidate for winner No. 12.

And any winner extending the streak would keep seven of their rivals -- including leader Denny Hamlin -- out of Victory Lane.

This week's winner could come from the "spoiler" category -- a driver not a part of the Chase contingent. Mark Martin and Ryan Newman are part of the different winners' streak that began in the summer of 2005.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway also has produced five first-time winners, most recently Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota) in 2009.

A New England Stumble Can Dim A Driver's Championship Hopes

Getting off to a good start is a given when championship hopefuls visit New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Sylvania 300. Only once has the eventual champion finished outside the top 10 (Jimmie Johnson was 39th in 2006).

Kurt Busch won the race in 2004 as well as the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Johnson had sixth-, second- and fourth-place finishes en route to 2007, 2008 and 2009 titles. Tony Stewart was the runner-up finisher in his championship season of 2005.

Conversely, the race can amount to a one-and-done situation.

Busch found himself on the opposite of the ledger the season following his championship run. He finished 35th at New Hampshire in 2005 and ranked 10th (and last) in the Chase.

Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota) was 38th and 10th a year later, as well as 10th (of 12) in 2008 after finishing 34th.

The 2008 race also proved the undoing of Matt Kenseth, whose 40th-place finish was significant in an 11th-place championship ranking.

A year ago, it was Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Ford) who was the victim of a New Hampshire misstep. Kahne was 38th in the race and 10th overall when the dust settled at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

Consider Jimmie Johnson's Chase Record; Not How He Reached The No. 2 Seed

A year ago on the eve of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the championship appeared to be Jimmie Johnson's to lose. The No. 48 team entered the Chase with momentum, won four of the 10 races and collected its fourth title by a margin of nearly 150 points.

Now, despite a No. 2 seeding, Johnson would seem to be the underdog.

Yes, Johnson won five races in 2010, one fewer than No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin.

But his last victory came nearly three months and 10 races ago, the last time the series visited New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Since then Johnson has hardly resembled Superman.

In fact, with an average finish of 18.7 and five placings of 22nd or worse, he has been merely mortal.

Based on the team's Chase record, however, it would be unwise to believe that Johnson isn't the driver to beat for the championship. His record, with the championship on the line, has been nothing short of sensational.

Johnson has won a record 18 times during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, one more victory than the combined total of drivers ranked second, third and fourth. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) have won six races each. Tony Stewart has five wins.

Johnson has won at least one Chase race in each of six seasons and four times in three of those seasons.

He's the only Chase participant with an average finish in single digits (8.4); is one of just two drivers with a Driver Rating of over 100; and has led 3,190 laps -- nearly double that of the next highest lap leader Matt Kenseth. No driver has more top-five or top-10 finishes. Johnson has scored an average of 153.1 points in 60 Chase races -- 15.2 more than teammate Jeff Gordon, the next most prolific scorer.

Johnson enters the championship season confident but not over confident.

"I'm using my past experience to remind myself that (these) 10 races are different from the rest of the year," he said. "Those 10 races put stress and pressure on teams that they aren't used to experiencing. We have done a good job with that over the years and I hope we can do it again this year."

On The Line: Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, was the guest on this week's teleconference.

Kenseth has been part of five of the six previous Chases for NASCAR Sprint Cup, returning after a one-year absence. His best finish under the format was second in 2006.

Q. Matt, do you feel any pressure to make it maybe seem like you're a little more excited just to be in the Chase or that you think your chances are better than maybe you really think or performance has shown compared to the others who are in it?

MK: Do I feel pressure to be more excited (laughter)? No, I don't feel pressure to be more excited. I am actually real excited that we're in the Chase because it hasn't been what we expected.

It's been a decent year. I mean, it's what everybody looks forward to and has their goals set on, is trying to make the Chase, trying to win a championship. You can't win a championship without making the Chase. So we did get that one.

I'm also a realist and realize that if we keep our average finishes we've had for the first 26 races, there's not a snowball's chance of winning the championship and we need to do better than that.

With that being said, I'm really excited about our prospects and how much faster the cars have been the last two months. If we do the right things during the race, if we execute properly, if we have great pit stops, do all the right things, I think the potential is there to get some good finishes and get up there and challenge for some wins. Certainly if we can do that, we'll be a contender down the stretch.

Q. You mentioned you're happy to be in the Chase, but the year hasn't been what you've been looking for. When you haven't won a race going into the Chase, does that bring more anxiety?

MK: Well, yeah, you want to win, but it also depends how you're running. I know Jeff Gordon hasn't been running quite as good lately the last couple months. For him, for instance, when I look at the first three months of the season, he didn't win a race either, but he was up leading tons of laps, was in position every week, and you knew it was just a matter of time, where we haven't exactly been in that position.

So there is pressure and anxiety to perform every week, whether it's winning or running up front or making the Chase or trying to run for a championship or whatever it is.

I'm one of those guys that gets excited after you do something, not before you do it. So if we can win some races, we can run for the championship,

I'll be more excited than anybody out there. But right now I'm just more thinking about the work that's in front of us (and) what we're going to do to try to accomplish those goals.NSCS Etc.: Chase Tracker Open To Media, Celebrities, Sports Figuresâ™¦ï€ Chase Tracker Game

Notes

Milestones This Week: Mark Martin continues to seek his 50th Coors Light Pole award. Bobby Labonte's next top-10 finish will be his 200th. Kyle Busch's next top 10 will be his 100th.

More Accolades for Chip Ganassi Racing: Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates continue to harvest the hardware as their Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Series drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas captured their third and second Daytona Prototype titles with their victory in the season-ending race at Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City. The win was the team's record-extending ninth of the 12-race 2010 season in which Ganassi/Sabates won its fourth DP team championship.

Most Popular Driver Finalists Announced: Voting for the full field of drivers for this year's NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver awards and the 10 with the greatest number of votes move on to the "playoff" round of voting. The top 10 finalists are, in alphabetical order: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. Last season, Earnhardt earned his seventh Most Popular Driver Award, which is administered by the NMPA. Only Earnhardt and Bill Elliott have won the award seven times since its inception in 1953. Fans may vote by visiting: www.HelpersMostPopularDriver.com. Votes may be cast through 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 22 once daily. The award will be presented at the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon in December in Las Vegas.Up Next: DoverDover International Speedway is the only concrete-surfaced track in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Jimmie Johnson has the most wins among active drivers -- five -- including a sweep of both Dover events in 2009. A Chase driver has won the AAA 400 in each season since going to the format in 2004 although Johnson is the only one to win at Dover in his championship season.

Kyle Busch won the Autism Speaks 400 Presented by Hershey's Milk & Milkshakes in May. The finish was a preview of Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifiers. Eight of the final 12 posted a top-10 finish with Busch, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin taking the first four positions.

Eight Chase drivers have scored victories at Dover International Speedway led by Johnson, Jeff Gordon, four wins; and Greg Biffle, Busch and Tony Stewart with two wins apiece. Burton, Carl Edwards and Kenseth also are Dover winners.

Fast Facts

The Next Race: Sylvania 300
The Place: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile paved)

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 19
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 317.4 miles / 300 laps

TV: Pre-race-12 p.m. ET on ESPN2; Race-- 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2009 Polesitter: Juan Pablo Montoya
2009 Winner: Mark Martin

Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday--Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m.;
Saturday--Practice, 9-9:50 a.m.; Final Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Richard Childress Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing