It's rough at the top

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Nascar’s 10-race ‘chase for the cup’ season-ending play-off starts at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 19. Following the year’s first 26 Sprint Cup races the top 12 drivers in the points qualify for ‘The Chase’, which has of course been dominated for the past four years by Jimmie Johnson, who has swept to an unprecedented four consecutive championships. In what is clearly the world’s most deeply competitive form of racing Johnson stands out as a fast, smart, generally clean driver who works superbly with crew chief Chad Knaus. Race after race, Johnson emerges in the closing stages as the man to beat, with his car best adapted to the track conditions for those critical final laps.

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team are favourites to win the championship again this year. Leading competitors include Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton with Richard Childress’s Chevrolet team, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch aboard Joe Gibbs Toyotas, and more remotely team-mate Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch in one of Roger Penske’s Dodges and Tony Stewart aboard his own Chevrolet.

“My goal through the regular season is to be smart, try to keep finishing in the top five, learn about our race cars and make sure we’re right so we can be winning when ‘The Chase’ comes around,” says Johnson. “If we have an opportunity to win a race we’ll certainly step up and try. But I think there’s more damage to be done if you’re out there driving over your means and every time you’re on the track you’re at or over the limit, getting everyone’s attention with a car that’s fast but feels terrible. So I think a consistent mindset is very helpful. I’m always looking for consistency.”

Meanwhile, NASCAR’s reputation for wild racing has escalated this season following the addition of double-file restarts, green-white-checker finishes and competition director Robin Pemberton’s famous admonition to ‘have at it, boys’.

“I just think it’s because the cars are very difficult to pass,” says Johnson. “Track position is more important than it’s ever been and guys are fighting for that, and after a bunch of blocking a feud starts. After a season where the cars are very tough to pass and you run into a routine of the same guy being a pain in the butt, then you decide, ‘Well, to hell with him’. And it starts. When you’ve been wronged it changes your approach in how you race people.”

Team-mate Mark Martin, 51, has raced Cup cars for 30 years and is NASCAR’s most experienced and respected driver. “It’s been this way all year long and it was this way last year as well,” he says. “That’s what equal cars and double-file restarts, ‘wave-arounds’ and all that other stuff bring you to. So I guess it’d better be fun to watch.

“It is getting worse,” adds Martin, “mostly because of the nature of our racing and the growth of the sport. Racing today is about the thrill of watching it on TV, and racing 25 years ago was about the sport. It wasn’t about the thrill [for the mass audience]. It was about being a part of something that you loved. It was a lot smaller and less entertainment-oriented, and if you weren’t one of the top teams you just had to survive. You couldn’t afford to go out there and wreck a car every week.”

Johnson says there are very few drivers that he now feels comfortable racing with. “I still try to respect people and try to race them like they would race me,” he explains. “You still see some people race that way. There are certain guys like Jeff Burton and Mark Martin who know how to race, but that number is getting smaller. There used to be maybe 10 or 15 cars that would play the give-and-take game, but now it’s down to three to five cars.”

A tough game gets rougher.

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