Bruce Martin
Monday September 27th, 2010

MOORESVILLE, N.C. --One of the fundamental instincts of any true race car driver is the desire to beat the other guy, to drive fearlessly and with calculated aggression.

But that's not always the case in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, a playoff series that seems to reward conservative driving over racing to win.

In fact, regular season points leader Kevin Harvick explained that he doesn't have to win races to win the Chase.

"If we finish fifth every week, we will win," Harvick said.

Fans come to the track hoping to see their favorite driver race to victory, not to finish seventh in an effort to protect their place in the Chase. And despite Jimmie Johnson's victory at Dover on Sunday, don't expect any dramatic changes in strategy as the 2010 Chase heads into its third race Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Johnson's dominant win at Dover may have been one of the most aggressive drives of the season simply because the four-time defending Cup champion had to make a move following his woeful 25th-place start to the Chase. But was Johnson's Dover race really a reward for aggressiveness or a sign of more things to come?

Dover is one of Johnson's best tracks. He won the pole on Sunday and led five times for a whopping 191 laps in the 400-lap contest. And while there were six Chase drivers in the top-10 on Sunday that might dispute the point I'm trying to make, most admitted they were content to take their finish rather than try to win the race.

"We definitely had a better car than where we finished," Kyle Busch said after finishing sixth. "There through about lap 300 or so, I thought we had a car capable of winning. We were fast. If I drove it a little bit over my head and a little harder, it was faster than the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), but I about wrecked a couple times so I just backed up and rode there. We thought we should have finished second. We could have been a lot better today. I'm disappointed with that.

"I feel like we're fine where we're at, but we're not showing anything yet and maybe we don't have to do that until five races to go."

There are few drivers who are more fearless and have the heart of a true racer than Busch. Just watch how he toys with the field in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series as he racks up win after win. But Busch understands if he is going to be a serious contender in the Chase he has to drive with calculation and accept top-10 finishes more than drive with fearless abandon to win races.

Busch's teammate, Denny Hamlin, realizes he will have to change his racing style to settle for finishes out of Victory Lane rather than risk a chance at the championship by gunning for wins.

"We didn't have the best car today, but we fought through and made something of it," Hamlin said after finishing ninth. "This is what we needed to do to get by this weekend and we feel like we can run with them from here on out. From here on out I feel like it will be better.

"All we're caring about right now is focusing on just getting top-5s and top-10s from here on out -- and wins at the tracks that we know we can win at."

In many ways, it is over at Dover -- at least in determining who is out and who remains in championship contention with eight races to go. Hamlin, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick will be the primary contenders with sixth-place Carl Edwards lurking 73 points out of the lead. Jeff Burton and Gordon remain within striking distance but will have to pick up the pace to remain serious contenders.

As for Greg Biffle, Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer, they are pretty much out of it and would need a motorsports miracles to have a chance at the championship.

For now, Hamlin has the advantage heading to Kansas but Johnson is rapidly closing in.

When the Chase was created NASCAR officials hoped it would add more excitement to the final portion of the season. But once the drivers and teams figured out racing conservatively rather than aggressively was the key to the title, it took a lot of the racing out of the equation.

When it comes to close championship battles, IndyCar has it all figured out as Team Penske's Will Power heads into Saturday night's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with just a 12-point lead over Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti.

That pretty much sets up a virtual winner-take-all contest at Homestead, where Power knows he has to finish one spot ahead of Franchitti to claim his first championship. There are a few other equations determining bonus points for winning the pole and leading the most laps that can change that, but for the most part, Power has to finish ahead of Franchitti to win the title.

This is the fourth time in Franchitti's career that he has been involved in a last-race championship battle. He finished the 1999 CART season tied with Juan Pablo Montoya, but lost on a tie-breaker when Montoya had seven wins compared to Franchitti's three. He won the 2007 IndyCar championship when Scott Dixon ran out of fuel in the last turn of the last lap of the last race of the season. Franchitti claimed another dramatic championship when Dixon had to pit with seven laps left and Ryan Briscoe had to pit for fuel five laps from the finish, giving Franchitti the race win and championship in 2009.

Franchitti may has proven his skill in open-wheelers, but there is one vehicle he is banned from driving -- the lawnmower.

"I tried to cut the grass once but I scalped it," Franchitti said. "Our gardener is a very polite woman named Lark but she left me a note with no room for doubt that I wasn't to cut the grass again because I scalped it."

Spain's Fernando Alonso may have won, but third-place finisher Mark Webber of Australia increased his lead in the Formula One World Championship from five to 11 points with a third-place finish under the lights at the Singapore Grand Prix. Webber collided with McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who dropped to third in the standings and is 20 points out with four races remaining.

"I'm not really sure what happened," Hamilton said. "He was in my blind spot so I didn't even know he was still there. All I know is I went in, I didn't see anyone alongside me and the next thing I know is my tire has blown and that's it. I saw Mark made a mistake and got caught up with a backmarker so I was in a position to slipstream him ... going into turn seven. I thought I was enough past him, I couldn't see him and turned in and tried to leave enough room on the inside and the next thing I know I got hit."

It was Hamilton's third retirement in four races and leaves him trailing championship leader Webber by 20 points with four races remaining.

"Twenty points is massive and with four races to go that is a big gap, I have to get my head down and hope for something," Hamilton said.

Alonso is second, 11 points back, as the Spaniard attempts to win his third F-1 title. He won Singapore for the second time in three years.

"It remains very tight," Alonso said. "Mark is still first with some margin, so... for the others we need to keep catching. For sure we will do our best -- we don't know if it will be enough. We hope so but people can be sure we [Ferrari] will fight 100 percent to the end.

"I have no idea. How can anybody possibly know until you run each feature race? I mean, that's just common sense tells you that you can't tell. Every week something can happen just like what we had this week or somebody getting crashed on the last lap. I don't know how anybody can tell that." -- An irritable Tony Stewart when asked how far into the Chase it will be before the true contenders emerge.

"There are questions surrounding that all the time and to be honest with you, I don't care what the points system is, how many drivers, what tracks, I will show up and do everything I can to try and win the championship. I could care less. Whatever the scenario is, I'll race it and I feel like our team is strong enough to be competitive in any format." -- Four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on whether further changes to the Chase format are necessary.

It's off to South Florida to watch another exciting last-race championship battle in the IZOD IndyCar Series. And while Will Power and Dario Franchitti are locked in a tight points face-off, it's a chance to get in some South Florida sun in preparation for the cooler fall weather.

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