Bruce Martin
Monday October 5th, 2009

Maybe drivers other than Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR's "Chase for the Championship" should approach the rest of the season like a dieter trying to shed excess weight:

Take a little off here and a little off there and keep chipping away at it rather than expect a huge chunk to disappear all at once.

That's what happened in Sunday's Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway as Martin and Johnson finished seventh and ninth respectively as nine of the top 10 finishers are all involved in "The Chase."

Granted, Martin still leads the standings by 18 points over Johnson, but it allowed other drivers to climb back into contention, including race-winner Tony Stewart, who entered the race 106 points out of the lead and is now 67 points back. Jeff Gordon went from 136 to 103.

There were only three drivers within 106 points of the lead after last week's race at Dover and now there are six.

"If we can just do it another seven weeks, man, I'll be happy with that," Gordon said. "Right now, we've got to focus on our team and our program and our finishes and we can't control what those guys do or Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart or any of them.

"We got a little bit behind at New Hampshire and we've got to make sure that is the worst finish we have in the Chase. That's the only chance we have and that's asking a lot, but that's now our goal. It's the position we put ourselves in."

So with three down and seven to go in the Chase; let's take a lot at how the 12 drivers fared on Sunday and what their prospects are heading to California.

• Martin began The Chase as the points leader by virtue of the bonus points he received by winning four races. He won the first Chase race at New Hampshire and has been the points leader in the first three races. It's off to California Speedway, where Martin has one victory, but that came in 1998. He has a chance to redeem himself after a 40th-place finish at Fontana in February.

"I extended on the 48 (Johnson) but I didn't on several guys," Martin said. "I don't think we should be getting all hyped up about the tally right now. We've got a lot of racing to go. We finished as high as we could. We raced our guts out and that's what you've got to do in all of them and see how they (points) tally up. We had a good race, a good result based off of being a whisker off."

• Johnson had a mediocre finish at Kansas, if a ninth-place finish can be considered mediocre. He actually lost ground in the standings although he didn't lose a position. He was 10 points behind Martin before the race and is now 18 points out. He is a three-time winner at California and has won the second race at Fontana the past two seasons.

"It is way too early to tell," Johnson said. "It is only three races in, the worst finish is ninth and we just don't know what is going to happen. I hate losing points. I felt like we had a shot to win the race and I don't know what went on about three stops from the end. We had a car that was so fast. We have to figure out what went on there and sort that out."

Juan Pablo Montoya scored his third-straight top-five finish when he was fourth at Kansas. Montoya now has more top-fives in The Chase than he did in the first 26 races when he had just two. He was 65 points out of the lead and now trails by 51.

"It was frustrating," Montoya said. "I know I got another top five, but the previous set of tires the car got were pretty tight. But this car has run good every week and time to move on to the next one. We took some points away where we thought we were going to lose a ton, so it's positive. I'll feel good when I get to Homestead if I have a chance on winning this. Otherwise, I don't care."

The bad news for Montoya is he has never cracked the top-10 in a Sprint Cup car at California. His best finish was 11th this past February. But he did clinch the 1999 CART championship with a fourth-place finish at Fontana, for whatever that is worth.

• Stewart drove to victory at Kansas for the second time in nine starts. Unlike his victory in 2006, when he ran out of fuel on the final lap and coasted to the finish, Stewart was full-throttle when he took the checkered flag Sunday, defeating Jeff Gordon by 0.894-seconds.

He gained a position in the standings, moving from fifth to fourth.

"It depends on who you are talking to," Stewart said. "It's not important to me that there are that many guys there within 103 points of the lead. I want to be within 10 points of it (the lead). But it shows how competitive this Chase is. Guys that were up front there had average days and a lot of guys closed on them today. It just shows that you're going to have to be on for 10 weeks to win this thing and if you have a bad day, there are going to be guys that are going to capitalize on it."

Kurt Busch finished 11th and dropped from fourth to fifth in the Chase. He also dropped from 75 points out of first to 91 back.

"We started in a hole by qualifying 39th, but we battled and got track position back midway through the race," Busch said. "We could never find the right balance between tight and loose. Our fuel mileage allowed us to stay out in green flag stops that allowed us to lead a lap and get those valuable bonus points."

Denny Hamlin finished fifth and remains sixth in points, but cut his deficit from 108 to 99 heading to California, a track where he has just one top-five and three top-10s in seven starts. But Hamlin believes the upcoming races that include Charlotte in two weeks and Martinsville in three are tremendous opportunities to make up some ground.

"It's better than what we normally run here so we'll keep digging," Hamlin said. "Right now, we are doing damage control to keep from losing too much ground before we get to the last five tracks where we know we are good at."

• Gordon is a three-time winner at California with victories in 1997, 1999 and 2004 and sees next Sunday's race as a tremendous opportunity to continue his forward progress.

"I think today was huge for us to have a great run and finish second," Gordon said. "We really needed this and expected it. These are the types of tracks where we'll be able to get our results. We did today now it's off to California to get it there."

• Biffle believes he gave away a victory on Sunday when he wanted four tires on his final pit stop but crew chief Greg Erwin overruled him for two tires. After that his car was loose and he finished third. The good news is Biffle improved from 138 points out to 114.

"I was catching the 14 (Stewart) but I got so loose -- coulda, woulda, shoulda," Biffle said. "It felt good to run good and continue my record here at Kansas of running well. We gained points and that is good. We'll just keep cracking away at it."

Biffle drove to victory at Fontana in 2005 and believes he can make up some more ground next week.

Ryan Newman finished 22nd at Kansas after starting 30th. He dropped from seventh in the standings, 122 out of the lad, to ninth, 164 points out.

Carl Edwards finished 10th and improved one spot in the standings. But he lost more ground in the points, entering the race with a 153-point deficit and is now 165 out.

Kasey Kahne finished sixth and went from 189 out to 190.

"We've always run pretty strong in all these Chase races and have pretty good cars this time of the year," Kahne said. "I think we should be good in the final seven races. We're definitely a ways back (in the Chase point standings)."

Brian Vickers for all intents and purposes is out of serious consideration for "The Chase" after he finished 37th and was involved in a spin on lap 127. He dropped from 10th, 151 out of the lead, to 12th, 250 points back.

The driver to beat remains Johnson. After that, Martin remains the sentimental pick, Montoya the surprise pick and Stewart has regained the dominance he displayed throughout the summer months.

Sebastian Vettel's flag-to-flag victory in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix improved the Red Bull drivers championship hopes as he is now just 16 points behind points leader Jenson Button in the battle for the Formula One World Championship. It was Vettel's third victory this season.

"It can still be done and it's looking much better now," Vettel said. "Shame there's only two races to go, but that's life. Anything is still possible and it can change quickly."

Button finished eighth and Rubens Barrichello finished seventh as Button's lead over his Brawn Racing teammate is just 14 points with two races to go.

It's great to see the focus in F1 return to the actual fight for the title rather than the sordid scandal involving Flavio Briatore and Patrick Symonds, which led to lifetime bans for both when they allegedly ordered Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash in an attempt to help teammate Fernando Alonso win the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.

Former driver Damon Hill has encouraged his fellow Briton to "put his foot down" in order to clinch the drivers championship.

"This is dragging on a bit and it's a bit like the Open with Tom Watson," Hill told the BBC. "It's getting towards the last few holes and it does look like it's all won and it should be in the bag but they don't have playoffs in Formula One. He really does have to lift his game, to put his stamp of authority on this one and make sure it happens."

Button, however, contends that he isn't losing his focus on the championship.

"We are doing the best job we can in a difficult situation," Button said. "I got a five-place penalty yesterday and so did Rubens. But I went back three places and he went back one. We are getting ourselves into these tricky situations and we are getting ourselves out of them in the race.

"Hopefully in Brazil we won't have to fight back from a bad grid slot and we can start at the front and finish near the front."

Barrichello has finished ahead of Button in four of the last five races.

"Whatever happens in Brazil, I will have a four-point lead," said Button, who leads F1 with six victories this season. "I lost a point today, which is frustrating as my pace was very good when compared to Rubens. But I started a long way behind him so losing one point isn't so bad. It's seven points per race now instead of five per race that he (Barrichello) needs to beat me by.

"It's not a bad position. I go to Brazil positive and I'm looking forward to the challenge."

The last time Dario Franchitti was in a winner-take-all championship scenario in the final race of the season was in 2007, when he won the title by passing Scott Dixon in the last turn of the last lap at Chicagoland Speedway.

At the time, Franchitti drove for Andretti Green Racing, but this year, he is Dixon's teammate at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

Dixon would like to even the score with Franchitti when it comes to beating the other for the IndyCar title as the series heads into next Saturday's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Dixon leads Franchitti by five points and Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe by eight.

"It would only be fair to do it that way," Dixon said. "I'll mention that to Dario before the race."

Franchitti welcomes the challenge.

"Fun, isn't it? That's the way it should be," Franchitti said. "We'll just keep our heads down and do the best that we can. We're both still in the fight. That feels pretty good. It's going to be a hell of a show at Homestead."

Thirteen months ago, Franchitti was out of the spotlight after his attempt at NASCAR did not go as planned. But when team owner Chip Ganassi convinced him to come back to IndyCar, it proved to be quite a wise move for the driver from Scotland.

"I'm having a blast," Franchitti said. "I'm really enjoying it again. I thought at one point I would have retired maybe by the time I was 35. But I'm still enjoying it. I still love it. The fact I can still be competitive, I'm still out there winning races and challenging for championships, it's just for fun. It's just because I enjoy it."

The IndyCar Series is down to its final race in its championship run that includes all races on the schedule, and a close race doesn't surprise Dixon.

"Dario and I 1-2 in the championship going down to the last race, it's what we expect for IndyCar," Dixon said. "It's going to come down to the final lap, the final corner of Miami."

"I think that's why they made the Chase. Right now Tony (Stewart) would be pretty much on cruise control with the championship. So they made the Chase to have a playoff-type system, and all year long it's been anybody that can win races and comes on strong, and now that's what we've got. I think that even though the Hendrick cars started off the first two races strong and we were strong today, that doesn't mean that this thing is over. There's a lot of racing left to go. There's a lot of great competition, and the competition is as even as I've ever seen it. Even though we've had some dominating performances, to have so many different guys in the Chase running up front at different racetracks is impressive." -- Gordon

"He came in here? Jeff Gordon came in here? Wow. That's awesome. I never would have thought Jeff Gordon would have come in here. I'll try to contain myself. You would think I would feel the vibe from it right now and understand that. I don't even talk about the old system because we don't use it anymore. It's not even a factor in the equation. It's like, yeah, we know we would have, but that's not what system we run under. We all know it starting the year. Unless they go back to it, who cares? Except for Jeff Gordon." -- Stewart

"I think we are through that stage now. Everybody is still happy about the fact that we're doing this in our first year, but I think since the Chase has started we all have expected more and we put more pressure on ourselves to perform better and more consistent each week so we still feel like we have a shot at this championship. That's what we're all pushing for right now." --- Stewart, when asked for the umpteenth time if this season has exceeded his expectations as an owner/driver

It's down to one race for the IndyCar Series championship as three drivers are separated by just eight points heading into next Saturday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The IndyCar Series has had a wild points race all season, with the lead changing hands in 14 of the previous 16 races. Now it's a winner-take-all scenario as the winner will win the championship. And with the IndyCar oval track races taking on a dramatic improvement after changes were made to the aerodynamic rules and the addition of a "push-to-pass" device beginning at Kentucky Speedway in August, it should make a dramatic race in the South Florida sunset.

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