NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ championship playoff was designed to shake things up and that’s exactly what happened at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway last Sunday in the first of ten ‘Chase’ races. Championship leader Kyle Busch lost his long-held position atop the points to Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards after a heim joint broke in Busch’s front anti-roll bar. Busch had to make a couple of pitstops for repairs and then spun while struggling with his car’s handling and was hit by Jamie McMurray. In the end, Busch brought his damaged car home twelve laps down in thirty-fourth position, falling 74 points behind new championship leaders Johnson (below, chasing the Toyota of Busch at New Hampshire) and Edwards.
Defending champion Johnson ran a strong race in New Hampshire, leading 96 laps and looking a likely winner until Greg Biffle passed him with twelve laps to go and held on to score his first win in more than a year. Biffle drives a Ford for Jack Roush’s five-car team and he beat Johnson’s Hendrick Chevrolet by a few car lengths. Biffle’s team-mate Carl Edwards was another second behind in third so that Johnson and Edwards lead the Sprint Cup Championship with 5,220 points apiece.
Nine races follow over the same number of weeks with New Hampshire winner Biffle third in the championship, thirty points behind Johnson and Edwards. Fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr is ranked fourth, fifty points behind the leaders after finishing fifth in New Hampshire while Johnson is the favourite to win a third Sprint Cup title in a row. He’s come on strong over the last two months and is fast on all types of tracks, which is not necessarily the case with Roush drivers Edwards and Biffle.
“Having won the last two year’s championships,” commented Hendrick Motorsports general manager Ken Howes. “It’s like Jimmie and his team know it’s about how you race in ‘The Chase’ and they know how to race in ‘The Chase’. There was no panic in the middle of the season. They had a few months to work it out and I think you’ve seen that take place. Jimmie’s showing the form right now. He’s ready to go.”
Three of Hendrick’s four Chevolets – Johnson, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon – are among the twelve qualifiers for this year’s Chase. Three of Jack Roush’s five Fords have qualified – Edwards, Biffle and Matt Kenseth; all three of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas – Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin; and all three Richard Childress Chevrolets – Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.
So despite its huge fields of more than forty cars and populist image, NASCAR is much like every other form of motor sport. The big teams dominate and this year’s ‘Chase’ is the exclusive property of NASCAR’s four top teams. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the audacious young Busch (above) can bounce back from his bad weekend in New Hampshire and take the title fight to Johnson, Edwards, Biffle and Earnhardt.