Tom Bowles
Thursday September 10th, 2009

As we head to Richmond this weekend, the most competitive Chase race in history will feature 11 drivers in a quest for the final eight spots in the 12-car field. With just 105 points separating fifth-place Carl Edwards from Brian Vickers in 13th, that leaves dozens of potential playoff scenarios. There's only one thing we know for sure among the madness: it's the best possible scenario for a sport that's been all too predictable in recent years.

Indeed, it appears the competition between the sport's top teams has evened out after being heavily skewed towards a select few in 2008. Through 25 races last year, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Edwards combined to win 17, leaving no doubt as to where the Chase champion would emerge. In the end, Busch ran into too many mechanical issues to contend in the playoffs, leaving a two-man battle between Johnson and Edwards for the trophy. It was all part of a year in which just four teams -- Roush Fenway, Hendrick, Gibbs, and Childress -- combined to fill the 12-car field.

But in 12 months, the sport's balance of power has evened out. Once the smoke clears on Saturday night at Richmond, the series could have a record eight organizations in the Chase for the first time in history (Stewart-Haas, Hendrick, Roush Fenway, Gibbs, Earnhardt Ganassi, Richard Petty Motorsports, Penske Racing, and Team Red Bull).

The parity extends to the men behind the wheel, as Kyle Busch and Mark Martin lead all drivers with just four wins apiece. That pales in comparison to Busch's eight wins through the same number of races a year ago, when he ran roughshod over his competition. Heck, not even one full multi-car team has combined to win more in 2009 than Busch did last year. (Hendrick leads in that category with eight).

Spreading the wealth on Victory Lane has also gone far beyond the guys competing for a spot in the Chase. This year has seen a single-car team win for the first time since 2003 (Phoenix Racing), while three organizations (Phoenix, Michael Waltrip Racing, and Red Bull) picked up their first Cup victories. Two rookies, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, joined David Reutimann as a trio of first-time winners. In all, 13 men have visited Victory Lane, up from a dozen a year ago -- and there's still 11 races left this season!

Certainly, the excitement has been muted due to the way some of these drivers have won. (Keselowski prevailed at a restrictor plate race, with engine restrictions evening out the competition, while Reutimann and Logano got a boost from Mother Nature in rain-shortened races). But when we look at the record books a year from now, their names will be etched in stone on the all-time victories list. It's far better than seeing the same driver pull into Victory Lane week after week ... right?

Those same fresh faces should extend into the 12-car Chase field. Juan Pablo Montoya, Vickers, and Reutimann are competing for their first ever playoff bid, while three others (Martin, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman) are looking for their first appearance since at least 2006. It's possible we could have up to six new drivers make the playoffs, the most turnover since 2005-06, when even defending champ Tony Stewart didn't make the field.

In the past, these bubble battles to make the postseason have had minimal impact, as the title favorites were those who clinched weeks ago. But during this unique season, Hamlin is the only driver in the top 5 in points with finishes of 10th or better the last five races. The other three already holding a spot (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson) have combined for a mediocre average finish of 16.8 over that same span. With their momentum fading, it makes 2009 the most wide-open title race in years. Any of the bubble drivers are in position to put on a Cinderella slipper and make a run beginning at New Hampshire next week.

Clearly, this year's Sprint Cup season has been far from perfect: the half-dozen teams who start-and-park each week, Jeremy Mayfield's drug suspension, the continued handling woes of the Car of Tomorrow, and declining attendance are on a long list of what continue to be nagging problems. Yet amid all the negativity, four weeks of higher TV ratings and close competition combined with the white-knuckle excitement ahead make you stop and realize that things are far better than anyone might have believed a few months back. There are reports the economy has bottomed out ... is this a sign NASCAR's not far behind?

1. Looking for a bubble driver spoiler this weekend? How about hometown hero Denny Hamlin, who led 381 of 382 laps here last May before a flat tire wiped out his chances for a victory? With a Chase spot already clinched, the No. 11 team has nothing to focus on but a win, and the Virginia native feels this track owes him like no other: he's led a career-best 600 laps here only to stay winless over seven career starts.

2. Don't discredit Rick Hendrick's decision to keep Tony Eury Jr. within his organization for 2010 and beyond. In 12 races with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Eury posted an average finish of 21.3. As for his replacement, Lance McGrew? Thirteen races and an average finish of 21.4. No one can pinpoint the problems with the No. 88, but at this point, it certainly doesn't look like they were Eury's fault.

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