NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ begins on Sunday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The 12 contenders for the premier Sprint Cup title were determined after Saturday night’s 300-mile race around the 0.75-mile Richmond Speedway in Virginia.
Local boy Denny Hamlin was the man to beat at Richmond, scoring his second win this year and the first at his home track. Hamlin drives for Joe Gibbs Racing’s three-car Toyota team, and the evening provided both delight and disappointment as team leader Kyle Busch failed to make the Chase after finishing fifth. Last year young Busch won eight races, and he was rated as a top championship contender this season. Everyone concedes that Busch is one of NASCAR’s fastest drivers, but luck and reliability have not been on his side. Kyle has won four races so far in 2009 but he is 13th in the points, just eight short of qualifying for the 10-race Chase.
Also failing to make the cut were 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth drives for the five-car Roush-Fenway Ford team and this is the first time he’s not made the end-of-season play-off. While Kenseth has been in and out of the top 12 all year, Earnhardt has had his worst year on record. He’s not come close to winning and is a distant 21st in the points.
Top seed in the Chase is 50-year-old Mark Martin, who’s enjoyed a resurgence this year, his first with Rick Hendrick’s all-powerful four-car Chevrolet team. Martin has won four races and was a very competitive fourth in Richmond. He started racing Cup cars in 1981 and has been a regular in NASCAR’s top flight since ’88, when he joined Jack Roush’s team. He has finished second in the championship four times, but has never won the big prize.
Three years ago Martin decided to run less than the full NASCAR schedule in order to help his son pursue a racing career. But last year, after his son turned his back on racing, Martin determined to run all 36 races once again, joining Hendrick’s superteam. Clearly Martin has the equipment to fight for this year’s title and without doubt he is the sentimental favourite.
Two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart is the second seed. In his first year as an owner/driver Stewart has done a superb job, winning three races and heading the points for most of the year. A key element in his decision to become a partner with machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas in Stewart-Haas Racing was the guarantee of a supply of cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, equal to those provided to Hendrick’s team. Stewart has been a ferocious competitor and will be fighting hard to win his third title and his first as a team owner. Team-mate Ryan Newman has also qualified for the Chase.
Other contenders include defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Hendrick drivers both. Third seed Johnson has won the title the last three years and has been equally competitive this year, winning three races so far. Team-mate Gordon has also been very competitive and is seeded sixth in the Chase. Richmond winner Hamlin and Kasey Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge are seeded between Johnson and Gordon.
Also qualifying for the Chase are Kurt Busch (Penske Dodge), Brian Vickers (Red Bull Toyota), and Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle aboard two of the five Roush-Fenway Fords.
And making the cut for the first time is Juan Pablo Montoya. This is the ex-F1 driver’s third year in NASCAR with Chip Ganassi’s team, which merged last winter with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The merger resulted in a switch from Dodge to Chevrolet and Montoya has truly earned his NASCAR spurs this year, often running near the front and showing plenty of racing moxie. Had he not exceeded the pitlane speed limit at Indianapolis in July, Juan would have scored his first NASCAR oval track victory. It will be interesting to see if he can put it all together to be a contender in the championship play-off.