Here's a look at this year's chasers for the NEXTEL Cup championship. 1. Jimmie Johnson (5,060 points) (5 wins / won the championship in 2006) Johnson is the biggest benefactor of the off-season tweaks to the Chase and will jump up from sixth...
Here's a look at this year's chasers for the NEXTEL Cup championship.
1. Jimmie Johnson (5,060 points)
(5 wins / won the championship in 2006)
Johnson is the biggest benefactor of the off-season tweaks to the Chase and will jump up from sixth place to claim the top spot based on his series-high six wins, including Saturday's win in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond.
Johnson was on fire early in the season, grabbing wins at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Martinsville before the season was two months old. He also won the spring race at Richmond and at his home track in California last week. Johnson had a mid-season swoon where he managed just one top-five finish in a nine race stretch, but has rebounded since crew chief Chad Knaus' returned from a four race suspension. He has top five finishes in five of the past six events and is looking to become the first driver to win consecutive championships since Gordon did it in 1997 and 1998.
What he said: "I think this is going to be the most competitive Chase that we've seen. I just want to be strong and steady and just start knocking out top fives."
2. Jeff Gordon (5,040 points)
(3 wins / finished 6th in 2006)
Gordon had a 317 point lead over Tony Stewart coming into Richmond, but leaves the track in second place in the Chase for the Championship. NASCAR added a 10-point Chase bonus for each win that a driver picked up during the first 26 races of the season. Gordon grabbed the points lead at Bristol five races into the season and has held it since then, but his teammate Jimmie Johnson claimed his series-leading fifth win last week in California and starts the Chase with a 20 point lead over his mentor.
Gordon won at Phoenix, Talladega, Darlington and Pocono in a seven race stretch in the spring, but he hasn't had a top-10 finish since Watkins Glen in August. He is the series' active leader with four championships and is looking for his first under the new format introduced three years ago.
3. Tony Stewart (5,030 points)
(3 wins / finished 11th in 2006)
Two-time series champion is back in the Chase after just missing the cut last year. He rebounded from a miserable 43rd place finish in the Daytona 500 in February to get into the top-12 three races later. He had back-to-back wins in Chicago and Indianapolis and then Watkins Glen two weeks later to jump into the top five in the standings. Stewart's 13th place finish last week in California was his first finish outside of the top-10 in the past two months.
Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli have been together since coming into the series in 1999 and last year was the first time that they finished outside of the top-10.
What he said: "After missing it last year, obviously as a whole organization, we're excited to be back in. We never in our wildest dreams thought we would have missed last year but it just shows you that you've got to be on top of your game here."
4. Carl Edwards (5,020)
(2 wins / finished 12th in 2006)
Edwards has been on a tear since peeling off an eighth place finish at Watkins Glen last month. He finished seventh in Michigan one week later before winning Bristol and following up with a second-place effort last week in California. Edwards picked up his first win of the season at Michigan in June. He missed the Chase last year after finishing third as a rookie in 2005.
What he said: "We're really excited about going to Loudon. It's going to be a great Chase."
5. Kurt Busch (5,020)
(2 wins / finished 16th in 2006)
Busch was on the outside looking in for the Chase until hooking up with new crew chief Pat Tryson and ripping off eight straight finishes of 11th or better, including wins at Pocono and Michigan in a three-week run. Busch, the only Dodge driver that made the Chase, won the 2004 championship, the first under the new format. He finished 10th in 2005 and missed the Chase last year in his first year with Penske Racing. Busch jumped from 11th to fifth in the standings after the cutoff because of his two wins and clinched his spot with a 10th place finish at Richmond.
What he said: "We have fast race cars, we have consistency and we've got patience. And the best thing is we've got experience."
6. Denny Hamlin (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 3rd in 2006)
Hamlin has been in the top-10 since the third race of the season. The sophomore's win at New Hampshire in July was his 10th top-10 finish in a 12-race stretch that solidified his spot in the Chase. He hasn't led a lap since the Daytona Fourth of July race, but ripped off top-5 finishes in a three-race stretch in August.
Hamlin came into Richmond in third place in the point standings, but slipped to sixth after the cut-off because of his lone win.
What he said: "We need to pick up our momentum a little bit. We're not coming in with big momentum like the guys like the 48 and 24 are but I think for the most part, we're solid and that's what it's going to take in the Chase -- to be consistent."
7. Martin Truex Jr. (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 19th in 2006)
Truex's spot in the Chase is one of the biggest surprises of the season to date. He had just one top-10 finish in the first six races of the year, but started to come on strong when he picked up his first Cup win at Dover in June. He followed up with a third place run at Pocono and a runner-up finish at Michigan that moved him into the top-10 in the standings. He added a second place finish at the second Michigan race and locked in his spot in the Chase for the Championship with a sixth-place effort last week in California.
What he said: "This is all of our first time in this deal so we're really excited (and) looking forward to it. I'm just going to keep racing."
8. Matt Kenseth (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 2nd in 2006)
Kenseth's relatively boring championship win in 2003 may have been the impetus for the new Chase format, but the Wisconsin native continues to go about his business. Kenseth and Johnson are the two drivers that have made the Chase in all four years of its existence. Kenseth won the second race of the season and his top 10 finishes in six of the next seven races helped him cement his status as a championship contender early. He was one of four drivers to drop three spots in the standings after the cutoff.
What he said: "I think you take it one week at a time and bring your best stuff, work hard at it and see how it turns out."
9. Kyle Busch (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 10th in 2006)
Busch made the Chase for the second straight year and would love to claim his first series championship in his final year at Hendrick Motorsports. Busch has been consistent enough throughout the season to be a serious contender despite starting with 50 fewer points than Johnson. His streak of eight top-10 finishes in the past 12 races helped him lock in his spot in the Chase. Busch won the spring race at Bristol and kicked off the Richmond weekend with a win in Friday's Busch Series race.
What he said: "We have to turn something around and see what we can do to run better next week."
10. Jeff Burton (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 7th in 2006)
Burton's career resurgence continued this season with an exceptional start to the year. He finished sixth or better in six of the first seven races of the year, including a win at Texas, his first trip to victory lane since 2001. Burton, the first of three Richard Childress cars in the Chase, has just one top five finish in the past five races and slipped from his early-season second place in the standings. He has led just one lap in the past 16 races.
What he said: "We're proud to have all three teams in the Chase. It's game on now. It's time to get going. We need to find a way to step it up a little bit if we're going to beat some of these guys."
11. Kevin Harvick (5,010 points)
(1 win / finished 4th in 2006)
Harvick had a great start to the season with his Daytona 500 victory and solidified his spot in the Chase with a six week stretch during the summer where he finished in among the top seven in five events. Harvick, who also won the All-Star race, finished seventh at Richmond for his first top-10 finish since his seventh place effort at Indianapolis last month.
What he said: "To get into the Chase is what we needed to do and now we've just got to get it together the next 10 weeks. We're capable of winning races and we know that."
12. Clint Bowyer (5,000 points)
(0 wins / finished 17th in 2006)
Another surprise story line, Bowyer is the only driver in the Chase without a victory this season. The Cup sophomore was driving in the ARCA series four years ago when he caught the attention of team owner Richard Childress. He hasn't led a lot of laps this season, but has been consistently among the leaders, but has finished on the lead lap in all but seven races.
What he said: "With a good race team that does a good job and gives me great race cars, of course I can believe that I'm in the Chase."