October 16, 2009

In a week where the inaugural class of NASCAR's inaugural Hall of Fame was announced it seems entirely appropriate that the circus swings through Charlotte and the sport's spiritual home base, for race number five of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The only night race on the 10-race schedule, Lowe's Motor Speedway is a track engrained in the past, present and future of the sport. Saturday night under the lights will be the 102nd Cup race run at the venerable 1.5 mile quad oval: a circuit that spawned the proliferation of mile-and-a-half and two mile tracks so prevalent in the sport today.

This week, no less, will be the third of five such "cookie cutter" races in the Chase, so it's worth looking at who performed well in the past couple weeks as you select your line-ups. One point to note, however, is that the banking in the corners at Charlotte is significantly steeper at 24 degrees than the previous two weeks at Kansas and Auto Club Speedway so while there is a solid basis for comparison, it's not a hard and fast rule.

That being said, it's hard to overlook the favorites of the previous few weeks so if you can activate Jimmie Johnson you should go ahead and do so. Given his fortunes at the track that bears the name of his sponsor, consider him a prohibitive favorite once again. Aside from the No. 48 there are a number of other candidates for success this weekend, starting with the part-owner of Johnson's car.

Jeff Gordon

Two straight second place finishes in the past couple weeks at Kansas and Auto Club Speedway have vaulted the four-time champion back into contention for a long awaited fifth crown. And with five wins, seven poles and 18 top tens in 33 attempts, LMS is indubitably a track where Gordon performs well, although given his prowess elsewhere this is not as meaningful a statement as it would be with some drivers. Back in 2007, on the back of a hugely dominating regular season, Gordon won this very race which at the time gave him a 68-point lead with five to go, but Hendrick teammate, Jimmie Johnson, stormed back reeling off four straight wins to lock up the title and deny the man who helped give him a Sprint Cup ride a fifth crown. One thing is for sure this weekend: Gordon needs to win or finish significantly higher than both Johnson and Martin.

By the numbers: Gordon has picked up at least a top ten in 21 of 30 races this season and has led 704 laps at LMS

Tony Stewart

After such a dominating regular season, Stewart put himself in an early Chase hole when he finished 14th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the first race of the Chase. Ninth at Dover was nothing to write home about but a win at Kansas and a fifth place run at Auto Club sees the two-time champion sitting in fourth place some 84 points back from Johnson. Stewart picked up his fledgling organization's first win in the All-Star race at Lowe's back in May and has won once and picked up a further ten top tens at the sport's "home track." While statistically not as dominant as, say, Gordon or Johnson, Smoke is a solid bet for your fantasy line-up this week as he looks to chip away at the triple champ's points lead.

By the numbers: In 21 races at LMS, Stewart has an average finish of 13.3

Mark Martin

A scant 12 points back in second place, the perennial runner-up knows he has his work cut out if he wants to best the man he shares garage space with at Hendrick Motorsports. The good news is that Martin runs well at LMS with two poles, four wins, 17 top fives and 22 top tens in 49 attempts. Still not prepared to consider the possibility of a Championship that has long eluded him until he makes it through Talladega, Martin is on a fantastic run of form finishing 2nd, 5th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 7th and 4th in the last seven races. More of the same, and then some, will be needed if Martin is to finally crown a career that has spanned three decades, 40 wins and 752 Cup races with a title. Expect a top ten (and better) under the lights this weekend.

By the numbers: Martin has run a whopping 15,697 laps at Lowe's Motor Speedway, 1168 of which were at the head of the pack.

Kasey Kahne

A blown engine at Loudon, and a subsequent 38th place finish, in race one of the Chase essentially ended Kahne's quest for a title before it had even begun. Given the uncertainty surrounding his parent organization, Richard Petty Motorsports, a championship for Kahne was always going to be, at best, a long shot this year, but LMS is a venue close to the Enumclaw, Wa native's heart, having swept both races in 2006 and won the first race in 2008. Kahne has run consistently well at the cookie-cutter circuits this season, including a victory at Atlanta a few weeks back, so if his equipment passes muster, he's got a great chance at a very high finish.

By the numbers: Kahne has an average finish of 12.4 at LMS

Casey Mears

It's been a difficult year for Casey Mears, and indeed the entire Richard Childress organization, and with sponsorship an issue for next year, his future is murky at best. Lowe's Motorspeedway might, however, be the perfect salve for a tough season. The site of his only Sprint Cup victory to date, the 2007 Coke 600, Mears will be looking to continue his run of four solid finishes this Saturday night. And with allocations dwindling, Mears might just surprise a few of you this weekend. Don't expect fireworks, but don't be surprised by a solid top-15 run.

By the numbers: Eight of Mears' 12 career top-fives have come at cookie-cutter circuits

Michael Waltrip

The clock is ticking on Waltrip's full-time Sprint Cup career, and as such you can help but feel the primary efforts of MWR are focused squarely on the double zero and the 47 car of Marcos Ambrose. With five DNFs in the last nine races at LMS, NASCAR's home track is not a venue to consider activating Waltrip. One wonders if when it's all said and done, Waltrip's career as an owner might end up being more impressive than his driving one, despite his longevity as a driver.

By the numbers: Waltrip has led just 73 laps out of the 15,594 he's run in 48 starts at LMS.

Next Up: Race six of the Chase will be held at the .526 mile-long paperclip that is the historic Martinsville Speedway -- the shortest track on the NASCAR schedule.

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