* Best-case scenario shaping up, going into last two Chase races * Three drivers within 50 points of Chase leader Kurt Busch * Six drivers within 150 points of Busch * Jeff Gordon's six Mountain Dew Southern...
* Best-case scenario shaping up, going into last two Chase races
* Three drivers within 50 points of Chase leader Kurt Busch
* Six drivers within 150 points of Busch
* Jeff Gordon's six Mountain Dew Southern 500 wins best among Chase drivers
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 10, 2004) -- Recent history, although revisionist history, indicated this incredibly close championship battle might well happen.
When the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup format was introduced prior to the 2004 season, it was only natural for people to wonder what "would've been" in past seasons, if the new format had been used. A five-year review was almost too good to believe. That review showed if the Chase format had been used, that theoretically:
• In 2000 and 01, seven drivers would've been mathetically alive for the championship going into the season's final race.
• In 2002, five drivers would've had a shot, entering the finale.
• In 2003, four drivers would've been eligible.
• In 1999, three drivers would've been eligible.
While all that is revisionist speculation, this is reality: Going into Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Chase points leader Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford) has three drivers within 50 points of him. Second-place Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is 41 behind; third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) is 47 behind; and fourth-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) is 48 back.
The next three drivers in the standings could be considered long shots -- at least right now. But given the unpredictability of the competition since the Chase began, the bottom line is that these next three must be considered, period, going into the season's last two races. Thus, don't count out: fifth-place Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), who is 102 points behind Busch; nor sixth-place Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), 142 behind; nor, even, seventh-place Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), 150 behind Busch.
Clearly, a best-case scenario is shaping up. And this time, it's the real thing.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
• You don't have to look at statistics long to see that Jeff Gordon is the man to watch this week, among hase contenders. Gordon has six Darlington victories -- five in the Mountain Dew Southern 500. He also has three poles at the famed egg-shaped track and 11 top-five finishes in 23 starts. "This track has really been good to me over the years," Gordon said. "You have to be patient and respect the track, know when to go -- and when to conserve. We're second in the points with only two races left, so we need to be aggressive. The pressure [of being in a tight points race] will keep building and it will become more intense. This is one track where you'd better block all that out. If you don't, this track will bite you in a second."
• Mark Martin is the voice of experience this weekend among Chase contenders, with 37 starts at Darlington. Through the years, though, Martin has done more than just show up, posting 22 top-10 finishes and 14 top-five finishes. His one Darlington victory was in the 1993 Mountain Dew Southern 500.
• Jimmie Johnson has only five Darlington Raceway starts -- but four top-10 runs, including a victory this past March. His brief history and flurry of success combines to give him an average finish at Darlington of 9.2, the best among the Chase contenders.
• Like Johnson, Ryan Newman has limited Darlington experience. And, like Johnson, Newman has taken to the testing track quickly, posting four top 10s in five starts. Newman also had the pole for last year's Mountain Dew Southern 500. "Darlington is, hands down, my favorite track to drive on," Newman said. "The track itself is so mentally and physically demanding. To win at Darlington, everything has to be perfect. This is the toughest track we race on. ... Throughout the day at Darlington, a driver has to continuously adjust his driving style to the demands of the track. Especially when the tires start to wear out. Tires play an important role at Darlington. You typically won't see any fuel-only or two-tire stops."
With only 48 points separating the top-four drivers, this is the closest points race with two races remaining ince four drivers were separated by 113 points with two to go in 1992. ... Rick Hendrick, car owner for Gordon and Johnson, has 10 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup victories at Darlington, tying him with Junior Johnson for most all-time. Of those first-place finishes, eight have been delivered by active Hendrick Motorsports drivers. ... Gordon is slated for his 400th consecutive career start on Sunday. Gordon ranks fourth among active drivers in consecutive starts, behind only Ricky Rudd (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford, 750 consecutive starts), Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, 659) and Mark Martin (543). Gordon hasn't missed a race since his November 1992 debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. ... The first laps that Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) led in his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup career were at Darlington, in the 1995 spring race when he led 18. Mayfield, 10th in the Chase standings, has led a total of 320 Darlington laps en route to seven top-10 finishes. ... Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in their career-first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at Darlington -- the 2002 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. Only four other active drivers posted top-10 finishes in their Darlington debut: Bill Elliott (10th, September 1977), Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet; fourth, September 1978), Tony Stewart (sixth, March 1999) and Mark Martin (seventh, April 1982). Nineteen of 100 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Darlington have been won from the Bud Pole, the most productive starting position. ... All 10 drivers competing in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup had at least one victory in the first 26 races of the 2004 season. ... Kurt Busch is the only driver to score a top-10 finish in seven of the eight races in the Chase. All of the drivers involved in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup are 35 years of age or younger except Mark Martin, who is 45. Busch is the youngest at age 25.
What: Mountain Dew Southern 500. (Round 9 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/ Race No. 35 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
When: Sunday, Nov. 14, 1:30 p.m. (ET).
TV: NBC, 1 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.
Posted awards: $5,219,075.
Race length: 500 miles/367 laps.
Track layout: 1.366-mile oval.
2003 winner: Terry Labonte.
2003 polesitter: Ryan Newman.
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch 6,191. 2. Jeff Gordon 6,150. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 6,144. 4. Jimmie Johnson 6,143. 5. Mark Martin 6,089. 6. Tony Stewart 6,049. 7. Ryan Newman 6,041. 8. Elliott Sadler 5,869. 9. Matt Kenseth 5,855. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,836.