* Busch's blown engine revving up other Chase contenders * Martin has 'marked' history of success at Phoenix * Mayfield making the most of Chase's remaining races * Newman returning to site of premier-series debut DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov.
* Busch's blown engine revving up other Chase contenders
* Martin has 'marked' history of success at Phoenix
* Mayfield making the most of Chase's remaining races
* Newman returning to site of premier-series debut
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 3, 2004) -- One driver's famine was another five drivers' feast this past Sunday. As a result, the table is set for a superb three-race closing act in the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, which heads to Phoenix International Raceway this week for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500.
Chase points leader Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford) had his momentum muted via a blown engine and subsequent 42nd-place finish this past Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"It's just tough to go 10 races perfect," said Busch.
Because of that, we now have this: Five drivers within 150 points of Busch, a quintet that includes two former series champions.
* Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), winner of three consecutive races, is second in the Chase standings after seven races, 59 points behind Busch;
* Johnson's car owner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, four-time champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is third, 72 back;
* Four-time series runner-up Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), closing out his next-to-last season of fulltime competition, is fourth, only 81 behind;
* Defending Phoenix race champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) is fifth, 98 behind;
* And Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), the 2002 series champion, is sixth, 145 points out of first place.
The reemergence of Johnson is the story of the season thus far, a combination of triumph and tragedy. After being the dominant driver in the 26 weeks leading up to the Chase, Johnson stumbled once the 10-race shootout began and fell dramatically in the standings. Now he's on a roll again, which is both amazing and admirable, considering the anguish caused by the Oct. 24 crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane that killed 10 people, including the brother and son of the organization's leader, Rick Hendrick.
"There has been so much going on in the last couple of weeks that it's kind of helping us as a team not to look at what we've done and to continue to look forward," Johnson said.
"I think that's the best way our team works. If we're not paying attention to what took place or where we're at, things always work out better for us. So, it's been a great run of races. We'll just keep plugging away and I think these last three races [we've won] have shown us it takes a full day's work."
Gordon is in a quandary of sorts. He takes pride in seeing Johnson challenge for the championship, but at the same time is focused on winning a fifth championship and edging closer to the all-time record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
"As a teammate, it's great to see Jimmie and the No. 48 team doing so well right now," Gordon said. "As a competitor, we need to stop his momentum and gain some of our own. The best way to do that is to win this weekend."
Gordon, surprisingly, has never won at Phoenix. But that's not to suggest he can't do so. After all, in his last 10 PIR events, Gordon has nine top-10 finishes. Johnson, meanwhile has only two PIR starts, but finished second last year to Earnhardt.
"The Chase has really tightened up, and I expect it to go down to the final race," Gordon said. "We haven't run particularly well recently, yet we're only 72 points out of the lead. The opportunity is still there. We just need to take advantage of it."
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
* Mark Martin likes his chances at the final three race tracks in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. As far as Phoenix goes, he has both experience and a history of success. Martin is one of six active drivers to have raced in all 16 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races held at PIR. He has 13 top-10 finishes at Phoenix and eight top-five finishes, both numbers the best among Chase competitors -- and all active drivers. Martin also has one Phoenix victory, that coming in 1993.
* Tony Stewart has three top-10 runs in five Phoenix starts, including a victory in 1999, en route to winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award.
* Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only four PIR starts, but he has two top-five finishes, including his victory last year.
NO QUIT IN MAYFIELD
Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) got into the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup in dramatic fashion -- by winning the 26th race of the season, Sept. 11 at Richmond International Raceway. Since the Chase began, however, Mayfield has faltered somewhat and comes to Phoenix 10th in the Chase standings, 316 points behind Kurt Busch.
Mathematically, Mayfield's alive.
Realistically, he's likely out of championship contention.
Encouragingly, that's not affecting his enthusiasm going into the last three races.
"It's been a tough ride through the first seven races in the Chase," Mayfield said. "We can't seem to break a good-finish, bad-finish trend. It started when I got caught up in a wreck at New Hampshire in the first race in the Chase. We came back with a good finish at Dover, but an accident took us out in Talladega. A top-five finish at Kansas was followed by another accident at Charlotte. A sixth at Martinsville was followed by problems at Atlanta when we cut down a tire early in the race.
"If the trend continues, then Phoenix is going to be a good race for us.
"The luck has been bad, but we're still a good race team and we still feel like we can move up in the top 10. We're going to keep running hard and go from there. I can tell you we've still got a great attitude. We're not disappointed in what we've done this year. We've had a great year. As far as attitude, nothing changes at all. If anything, it has made us a better team with a better attitude. We're honored to be here and be a part of this deal."
NEWMAN BACK WHERE HE STARTED
Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) -- seventh in the Chase standings this week -- made his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series debut at Phoenix International Raceway, in 2000, starting 10th and finishing 41st. Since, while he has yet to win at PIR, he has nonetheless taken to the one-mile oval. Newman has won the Bud Pole Award at the last two PIR races, the only repeat pole winner in the track's 16-year NASCAR NEXTEL Cup history.
"Every year, our race at Phoenix is like a birthday for the ALLTEL team," Newman said. "Kind of hard to believe that we've been doing this for four years now.
"Last year we finally got a good finish (third) there. We've done well in qualifying but we seem to struggle a bit with the race. Every time we race there, we learn more about the track and that can only help us."
WRISTBAND SALES BENEFITING HENDRICK MARROW PROGRAM
Fans looking to show their support for those affected by the recent Hendrick Motorsports aviation tragedy can turn to the Hendrick Marrow Program. For a $1 donation, fans will receive a blue wristband with the inscription "LIFE IS A TEAM SPORT." All proceeds from sales of the wristband, which was worn by Jimmie Johnson during his win last week at Atlanta, helps support those diagnosed with leukemia or one of 70 other life-threatening blood diseases. Wristbands will be available on NASCAR.com as well as through Hendrick Motorsports.
The average starting position of the 16 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race winners at Phoenix has been 12.5. Only six races have been won from a top-10 starting position. ... The race has never been won from the Bud Pole at Phoenix. ... There have been 14 different race winners in the 16 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Phoenix. ... Phoenix is one of only four active tracks where Jeff Gordon has not scored a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup victory. Chicago, Homestead and Texas are the others. There have been more than 100,000 practice laps run by NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers in 2004. The 4,239 individual practice sessions this season have totaled 103,536 laps.
What: Checker Auto Parts 500. (Round 8 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/ Race No. 34 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Ariz.
When: Sunday, Nov. 7, 3 p.m. (ET).
TV: NBC, 3 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.
Posted awards: $4,844,100.
Race length: 312 miles/312 laps.
Track layout: 1-mile oval.
2003 winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2003 polesitter: Ryan Newman.
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch 6,052. 2. Jimmie Johnson 5,993. 3. Jeff Gordon 5,980. 4. Mark Martin 5,971. 5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,954. 6. Tony Stewart 5,907. 7. Ryan Newman 5,866. 8. Elliott Sadler 5,815. 9. Matt Kenseth 5,795. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,736.