Friday September 14th, 2007

Most drivers won't admit it, but here's the truth about Sunday's race in Loudon, N.H.: When it comes to winning the championship, this is the second most important event of NASCAR's grueling, nine-month-long season, right behind the season-finale at Homestead, Fla.

No, the Sylvania 300 doesn't have the prestige of the Daytona 500, or the glamour of the Brickyard 400, or the juice of the All-Star race, but it does possess something that none of these glitzy events boast: It's the tone-setter for the Chase. A good finish in Loudon this weekend keeps a driver in the title hunt; a bad result can knock a driver out of Cup contention even before the 10-week sprint to the championship is a day old.

It's happened before. Rewind the clock back to the fall of 2004. That afternoon in New Hampshire Tony Stewart, roaring into the Chase's first ever race, had what he believed to be a top-five car when he got caught up in a accident that was started by Robbie Gordon. Poof! went Stewart's title dream. He was forced into the garage and finished 39th. ''That'll probably take us out of the championship, but that's part of it,'' Stewart said that afternoon. And he was right: Though Stewart didn't finish lower than 17th in any of the remaining races, he wound up sixth in the standings and was never a serious title threat after his New Hampshire nightmare.

It happened again in the autumn of '05. On just the second lap in New Hampshire, Kurt Busch crashed after being bumped by Scott Riggs. The defending champ never recovered from his dismal day in Loudon and finished in last place in the Chase.

And then last year, Busch's younger brother Kyle had his title hopes dashed in the Granite State. Less than 30 seconds into the race, on that same second lap of the Sylvania 300 that doomed his brother in '05, Busch collided into Jeff Green, suffered major damage, and finished 35th. Just like that, SI's pick to win the Chase last fall lost all of the momentum he had generated over the previous two months. Busch then limped to a last place finish in the Chase.

There has been one driver, however, who has been able to overcome a slow start in Loudon. Last year Jimmie Johnson wrecked early in the first Chase race and finished 39th in New Hampshire. He rebounded to win the Cup, but not even Johnson expects a driver to be able to climb out of deep points hole this season. "There's just too many guys who are running well right now to think that you can come back from something like that," says Johnson. "Then again, you never know."

We do know this, though: A driver can't win the title on Sunday in New Hampshire, but he certainly can lose it.

The latest conspiracy theory floating through the garage is that Teresa Earnhardt is sabotaging Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s racecars. Earnhardt has suffered more blown engines this year than any other driver, the latest coming in the last laps at Richmond last Saturday night. Could Teresa, his stepmother, possibly have a hand in this? In two words: No way.

It's true that Teresa doesn't get along with Junior, and their broken relationship is the sole reason Little E is moving to Hendrick at season's end. But it's not in Teresa's interest to have Junior struggle; after all, as Little E's owner, it costs her money every time he fails to finish a race. The engine failures have been baffling -- Little E's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., hasn't had nearly as many problems -- but you need to chalk these up to bad luck and fluky failures, not a conspiracy.

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