The green flag drops on the second race in the Chase on Sunday at the Monster Mile in Dover, Del. Here are five drivers to keep an eye on:
How good is Johnson in the Chase? The three-time defending champ has recorded 27 straight Top-15 runs in NASCAR's playoff and over that stretch he has 22 Top 10s. Last Sunday in New Hampshire he quietly drove his No. 48 Chevy to a fourth-place finish, which was akin to a victory for Johnson since Loudon is one of his worst tracks in the Chase.
Johnson flexed his muscle early this weekend in Dover, zooming to the top of the speed chart in just a few laps in the first practice on Friday. He won at the Monster Mile in the spring and should be the driver to beat on Sunday. The No. 48 team typically bides its time at the start of the Chase, content to rip off Top-10s over the first few races until the circuit moves to tracks that Johnson dominates -- places like Kansas, Charlotte and Phoenix. But on Sunday look for Johnson, who hasn't won since July at Indy, to begin to seize control of the Chase by taking the checkers.
Martin is authoring one of the best seasons of his 27-year Cup career. Last Sunday he won his series-best fifth race of 2009 take a 35-point lead over Johnson and
Martin has made more than a season's worth of starts at Dover (46) and has four wins at the banked, one-mile track. In his last 11 starts there, he has six top-five runs. Given the way Martin's performed recently, go ahead and pencil him in for another top five on Sunday. He'll leave Dover still holding the points lead.
Montoya has quickly emerged as the biggest wildcard in the Chase. Last weekend at Loudon he led the most laps (105) and finished third. He was driving a new car built by his crew chief
Montoya is fourth in the standings, which is the highest he's been in his three-year Cup career. With him, it doesn't do much good to look at his past performances at tracks, because he's improved so much in the last year. But if leaves Dover with a top-five run -- he hasn't finished higher than 30th at the Monster Mile in his last two starts -- it will send a statement to the rest of the Chase field that Montoya won't be fading anytime soon.
If there is one driver outside of the Hendrick Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing stable that looks capable of winning the title, it's Hamlin, who came in second at Loudon. But this is a very, very important weekend for Hamlin. Unlike Johnson, who flourishes at all of the Chase tracks, Hamlin has traditionally struggled at Dover, Kansas and Charlotte. In fact, those three tracks, which happen to be three of the next four stops on the circuit, are Hamlin's three worst on the schedule. How bad has Hamlin been at Dover? In his last four starts here he hasn't finished higher than 36th.
So Hamlin is kind of in the same boat as Montoya. We'll find out soon if he's a bona-fide title contender.
After leading the standings for most of the regular season, Stewart suddenly finds himself in a points hole. He finished 14th at Loudon and trails Martin by 74 points. Stewart simply cannot have another mediocre run over the final nine races and remain in title contention.
But Dover has been good to Stewart recently; he finished second here in the spring. In 21 career starts at the Monster Mile, he has an average finish of 11.7. Stewart needs to keep Martin and Johnson in his sights all afternoon on Sunday. If he doesn't, his dream first season as a driver-owner could essentially be over with two months left before the checkered flag flies in Homestead.