Richmond was just the beginning. Now that the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup class is officially set, it is time for the top ten to get to business. This weekend at New Hampshire International Raceway, drivers will be able to size up their ...
Richmond was just the beginning. Now that the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup class is officially set, it is time for the top ten to get to business. This weekend at New Hampshire International Raceway, drivers will be able to size up their competition and see who will lead the way now that the points have been reset.
1. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Roush Racing Ford Fusion (Points: 5,050)
Kenseth will begin the first Chase race leading Jimmie Johnson by five points. In 13 career starts at NHIS, Kenseth has earned eight top-10 finishes. He wound up third at this race last year and finished 14th at the NHIS race in July. Kenseth has four wins this season. Kenseth is the one if just two former champions in this years Chase field, he won the title in 2003.
"It feels good leading the points," commented Kenseth. "It's five points, but it's still five points. I feel good about that. My team has been doing a great job this year and we've been able to steadily pick away at Jimmie's lead a little bit here and there and was able to finally get it last week. It feels good to get it, but the main thing is to try and not give it back. I'm happy with what we've done the first 26, but the ones that count are coming up now."
2. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Points: 5,045)
Despite being the point leader for all but four races this season, Johnson enters the first Chase event second in points. In nine career starts at NHIS, Johnson has two wins and five top-10's. He was eighth in this race last season and garnered a ninth place this past July. He has won four races this season.
"I think I have at least as good or even better chance to win a championship now as I ever have," Johnson commented. "So does everyone else. When you re-rack this thing and there are only 45 points between first and tenth, everybody has a shot. It will come down to who can deal with everything and have the best car. If you get off to a slow start in the Chase, if you aren't a strong team, the pressure of the Chase can knock the wind out of your sails and hurt you. The champion has had a bad race. The goal is to not have a bad race. If you have one at New Hampshire, then you have to have nine perfect ones after that. That's what it boils down to. This year, I think, has a stronger more competitive top-10 than before. Maybe that mindset won't work and you need to focus on having all top-10s or top-5s."
3. Kevin Harvick, No.29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Points: 5,040)
Harvick has nothing but momentum on his side. He swept both the Busch and Cup events at Richmond International Raceway and enters the Chase for the first time in his career third in points. This is also the first time Richard Childress Racing has had one of its drivers compete in the Chase. He has 11 career starts at NHIS, scoring six top-10 results. He was 10th in this race in 2005 and finished fifth at this track in July. He has won three races this season.
"I think Richard (Childress) should be as proud as anybody," said Harvick of two RCR cars making the Chase. "He should walk around with his chest bowed out. I don't care what happens after this point. This year is a success. We've put two cars in the Chase and we're kicking butt in the Busch cars. Things have gone really well."
Harvick is also leading Busch series points standing by such a wide berth that it is mathematically unlikely anyone could catch him. If he wins the Cup series title as well it would be the first time in NASCAR history that a driver has held the Busch & Cup titles concurrently.
4. Kyle Busch, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Points: 5,035)
This is the first time Busch will be competing in the Chase. He has three career starts at NHIS with two top-five finishes. He finished 27th at this race a year ago and won this past July; his only win this season.
"It helps out a lot actually," Busch said of having two teammates in the Chase. "After happy hour we have our team meeting. We all sit down and talk about things and the way our cars are running. It's going to be cool. Not only are they in there and they're going to be racing their hearts out, they're probably not going to give too much room especially to the younger campaigner there for Hendrick Motorsports, myself. I'm looking forward to it. I want to race them just as hard as I would race anybody else for this championship and prove that Hendrick Motorsports' 21-year-old can get it done."
5. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet (Points: 5,030)
Hamlin is the first Raybestos Rookie of the candidate to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup since its inception. Hamlin has made just one career Cup start at NHIS where he ended up sixth. He has two wins this season.
"This is really big," said Hamlin. "To be at this place right now. Now we have got a clean slate and we can go for the championship."
6. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated Chevrolet (Points: 5,025)
This is the second time Earnhardt will be competing in the Chase, he missed it last year but was a contender in its inaugural event. He has raced in 14 career Cup events at NHIS earning six top-10 results. He was fifth in this race in 2005 but in July he had engine trouble and finished 43rd. Earnhardt is the driver in the top-10 with the worst finishing record at NHIS. He has one victory this season.
"Now we can replace it with the pressure of winning a championship (laughing)," said Earnhardt of making the Chase. "I want to win a championship bad, and being in the Chase is the first big step in doing that. I'm honored to be in the Chase. I'm happy for my team, because they gave me such great effort all year. They deserve this. My fans deserve it. My sponsors deserve it. Everyone who stuck with us through last year deserves being a part of this Chase for the Championship, so I hope they soak it up, because I know I am."
7. Mark Martin, No. 6 Roush Racing Ford Fusion (Points: 5,020)
With retirement finally at hand, this is Martin's last chance to earn a Cup series title before his career comes to a close. This is his third consecutive year competing in the Chase. In 23 career starts at NHIS, he has 13 top-10 results. He was fourth in the July race and seventh in this race last year. Martin's last Cup win came in October of 2005 at Kansas. He is winless this season.
"I'm not worried about the championship," Martin said. "We might get lucky or something, but just to be in the chase with all these great, young drivers is a big deal to me. I was really dreading missing the chase because I was gonna feel like I lost and from here on out these last 10 races I'm gonna have fun. I promise."
8. Jeff Burton, No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Points: 5,015)
This is the first time Burton will be competing in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Burton has 23 career starts at NHIS and has four victories, the most of all Chase competitors. He was ninth in this event in 2005 and scored a seventh place in July. Burton is winless this season.
"I don't think there is any strategy," Burton said of the Chase. "I think you just go run the best you can and you do the very best you can every single week. I think that's the strategy. I think it's way too early to talk about strategy. If you try to do something different than what you know, I think that's a mistake. For us, we are who we are. We know where we need to be better. We know where we need to improve and we're going to focus on that."
9. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Points: 5,010)
Four-time title holder Gordon makes his second trip into the Chase field after missing it last season. In 23 NHIS starts, Gordon has three wins and 12 top-10 finishes. He was 15th there in July and 14th in this race last season. He has two wins this season.
"Once you experience what it's like not to be in it, it makes you appreciate it that much more and it sucked," said Gordon. "It's not easy to get in. You have to fight every single weekend just like we had to fight tonight. We've had to fight alot to get ourselves positioned into this Chase. We're in it and now we can breathe a little easier but that's all going to stop once we get to New Hampshire next week. It's going to be intense the next few weeks."
10. Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge Charger (Points: 5,005)
Kahne just topped reigning series champion Tony Stewart (by 16 points) to make his way into the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup. He is the only Dodge driver to make the field. Kahne has five Cup starts at NHIS with four top- 10 finishes. He leads all drivers this season with five wins.
"We did what we had to do two weeks in a row and we ended up making it in," said Kahne after last weekend race. "Richmond will always be a special track for me. I won my first Cup race here and I made my first Chase here, so Richmond has been real good to me. I'm very surprised that Tony Stewart didn't make it in. I never would have thought he would be the one not to make it in. I couldn't have won tonight, but we easily had a top three car all night. It's exciting to be in the Chase. That was our goal when the season started and I'm really happy that we made it."