Chase set for suspenseful final four races

Forget Patricia Cornwell novels, calorie-free salad dressing and the quantum theory of the universe. There's a new mystery afoot, and it's who will win this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. Just when it seemed safe to wager that Jeff Burton was...

Forget Patricia Cornwell novels, calorie-free salad dressing and the quantum theory of the universe. There's a new mystery afoot, and it's who will win this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Just when it seemed safe to wager that Jeff Burton was all but a lock for this year's title, an engine miscue at Martinsville has closed the gap on the top ten; making it anyone's Nextel Cup this season.

Burton fell from first to fifth in points and trails new leader Matt Kenseth by 48 points. The entire top ten is separated by just 171 markers finally giving NASCAR what they always intended with the Chase format, a close - anyone's guess finish.

"It's still pretty wide open," said Kenseth. "It's going to be pretty exciting, I think, coming down to the last race."

The entire complexion of the Chase changed Sunday with Burton's misfortune and for the first time in the formats three year history the leader has switched hands in the second leg.

In the inaugural Chase race in 2004, Kurt Busch grabbed the lead after the third race to earn his first championship. Last season, Tony Stewart reigned for the last eight races of the season on his way to his second title.

With all ten Chaser's still mathematically in the hunt it has created the kind of suspense NASCAR wanted to compete with the National Football League and keep race fans glued to their television sets on Sunday's.

While many had counted Jimmie Johnson out this season, his win coupled with Burton's woes put him back in spitting distance. He sits 41 points out of the lead and just five points shy of second placed Kevin Harvick.

"Any team is still capable of winning the championship, the points are really close right now," commented Johnson. "So there can be a lot of moving and shaking and I don't think anybody is going to sleep well these next four races. It is going to be tough and a lot can happen."

Now that's drama.

Johnson, who has always been the bridesmaid and never the bride in pursuing his first title, may be the most formidable competitor in the final four races. Although the swan song storylines of Mark Martin (to win in his final full time season) or Harvick (to win both the Busch and Cup title in the same season) may be what keep fans tuned in as we approach the final stretch.

Jeff Gordon all but dismissed his shot at a fifth championship ring when he sat 216 points out entering Martinsville. He and crew chief Steve LeTarte said they would concentrate on working towards 2007, but now that Gordon is just 141 back in ninth they may refocus their attention to the Chase.

"As long as you are mathematically still in it, you can't count yourself completely out of it," commented Gordon.

Then there is fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. No one would garner more cheers from the NASCAR nation than the Driver 8 winning his first championship. Earnhardt, however, let impatience cost him valuable points in Martinsville when he attempted to pass Kasey Kahne and ended up wrecking costing him a top-five finish.

He is now 94 points out in sixth, but Atlanta Motor Speedway (this weekend's race) is one of his best tracks and certainly his best opportunity to ascend the point's grid.

One thing is certain no one can be counted out with just four races left for resolution.

For Burton, he isn't going to let one bad week define his season.

"By no means do I think we are out of this thing," Burton said. "We won't lay down. We'll go to Atlanta feeling like we have as good a shot as anybody."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Mark Martin