Can anyone stop the Hendrick juggernaut?
This is the key question as the Sprint Cup circuit heads to California Speedway this Sunday for Race No. 4 of the 2009 Chase. So far, a Hendrick Motorsports-backed car has won every race of the Chase -- Mark Martin in Loudon, N.H., Jimmie Johnson in Dover, Del.; and Tony Stewart (who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, a satellite Hendrick team) in Kansas City last weekend. For the better part of the last few months it's been almost accepted as fact in the garage that a Hendrick driver would win the championship. After all, Hendrick and its satellite team have thoroughly dominated the season, winning 14 of the last 24 races and putting five drivers (Johnson, Martin, Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman) into the Chase.
So can a driver from another team make a run at the Hendrick boys? Here are four who have a chance:
1. Juan Pablo Montoya
This week Montoya will be driving his best car of the season. The No. 42 team is bringing chassis No. 819 to Fontana, which is the same car that finished third in Atlanta in September, second at Pocono in August and 11th at Indy in July. But that last finish is deceiving, because at the Brickyard -- a track that has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway -- Montoya led 116 laps, was never passed under the green flag and would have won the race if not for a late penalty for speeding on pit road. In other words, this is Montoya's most prized vehicle, and if there's one race he should have a great chance of winning in the Chase, this should be it.
Montoya has been the biggest surprise of the playoffs. Though he had only two top-five runs in the regular season, he's the only driver who's ripped off three consecutive top-fives in the Chase. Currently in third place and 51 points behind leader Mark Martin, Montoya has easily been the most consistent driver in the Chase. The statistics in the playoffs tell the story: Of all the Chase drivers, he owns the best starting position (5.7), the best average running position (4.69) and highest percentage of laps run in the top 15 (99.4).
But the question for Montoya is this: Will he have enough speed and handling at the end of races to outrun the Hendrick drivers? So far in the Chase he hasn't. And recently history tells us that to win the championship you have to take checkered flags in the Chase, not just settle for top-fives. This is why Sunday is so important for Montoya. Will his fastest car be fast enough?
2. Kurt Busch
When Busch captured the championship in 2004, he won the Chase opener at Loudon and then had back-to-back top-five runs. This year he's put together a sixth, a fifth and an 11th to sit in fifth place in the standings, 91 points behind Martin. But Busch was among the most impressive drivers last Sunday at Kansas. After starting 39th, he was in position for a top-five finish had a late-caution flag not come out and allowed other drivers, who were running out of fuel, to pit for gas.
Earlier this year Busch qualified fourth at Fontana and finished fifth. He believes that if he can cobble together seven more top-10 runs the championship will be his -- even if he doesn't win a single race in the Chase. Says Busch, "If we can head into Homestead with a good enough record to be at averaging a 7.5 finish or so, I think we'll have a shot at it."
Busch is on pace for that. His average finish in the Chase is 7.3. For the record, when he won the title his average Chase finish was 8.9.
3. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has already had his so-called mulligan of the Chase when he finished 20th at Dover. He rebounded nicely last week with a career-best fifth-place at Kansas, but he's still a long shot. The only driver from Joe Gibbs Racing in the Chase, Hamlin is 99 points behind Martin.
Still, this is a team that, at times this season, has looked like a serious title contender. During one seven-race stretch over the summer and early fall, Hamlin had two wins, four top-fives, and seven top-10s. Those are the stats of a champion. But the Chase schedule couldn't set up much worse for Hamlin. All of the tracks at which he struggles are in the playoffs, including Fontana. Even though he finished third in the fall race in California last year, his average finish in seven career starts at the two-mile, D-shaped oval is only 14.0. Hamlin also runs poorly at the next two tracks on the schedule, Charlotte (average finish: 15.9) and Talladega (18.9).
Until Hamlin proves that these venues are no longer his weak spots, he'll never be in contention late in the Chase.
4. Greg Biffle
Biffle is intriguing. Though Roush-Fenway Racing has been down for most of the year, he had the fastest car in the field at Kansas, leading the most laps. He probably would have won if he had taken two tires instead of four during a late pit stop -- this caused him to lose valuable track position to Stewart, who opted for a two-tire stop which catapulted him into the lead. Biffle still finished third. Because Kansas is the first of four 1.5-milers in the Chase, drivers who run well there typically are fast at Charlotte, Texas and Miami. So even though Biffle is 114 points behind Martin, I don't think he's out of it yet -- especially because Fontana is one of Biffle's best tracks.
In his last two starts in California, Biffle has two top-five finishes and he was running down eventual winner Matt Kenseth in the February race, but Biffle simply ran out of laps to catch him. After his strong performance at Kansas, Biffle sensed that his team had turned a corner and had hit on a setup package that would allow him to run nose-to-nose with the Hendrick drivers. "We feel we're on track -- definitely at California," Biffle said. "We feel we're going to be right on the button."
The No. 16 team needs to be because as is the case for all of the non-Hendrick drivers, Biffle and his crew can't afford any more slips-ups and hope to challenge for the championship.