By Bruce Martin
September 21, 2011

The first Chase for the Championship race is behind us, and some of the top names are already stumbling. Matt Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd), Jeff Gordon (24th) and Denny Hamlin (31st) were all on the losing end of Monday's fuel mileage run at Chicago. Are their championship chances doomed? Not quite, but they have already used up one of their mulligans.

Looking back, the first race of the Chase doesn't win a championship, but it can certainly end a title bid for drivers who get into a hole early.

In 2008, Kyle Busch dominated the 26-race regular season with eight victories and entered the Chase as the favorite to the win the title. But a crash in the first Chase race, at New Hampshire, left him eighth in points, and another poor finish in the second race, at Dover, quickly dashed his title hopes.

He's off to a great start this year, but Tony Stewart has been bitten by slow Chase starts, too. In 2009, Stewart ended the regular season as the top driver in the standings but a slow start at New Hampshire dropped him to sixth place after just one race. He never fully recovered from that deficit and finished sixth in the standings. A year later, Stewart had a disastrous first race and was 10th in the standings after Round 1. He would finish seventh in the standings.

Then there is Jimmie Johnson, who tripped over himself in the first Chase race in 2006, finishing ninth in the standings. Nine races later, Johnson recovered and won the first of his five-straight Cup titles. He did it again four years later, shrugging off a slow start to win a record-extending fifth straight Cup title.

So there is hope for several of NASCAR's biggest names, including Gordon, who dropped from third all the way down to 11th in the standings.

"We have to get a little bit better," Gordon said. "We have to qualify better; we can't have days like we had today. That's for sure."

Kyle Busch had a great car at Chicagoland before hitting debris that forced him back in the field. He could have salvaged a better finish before it became a fuel economy run.

"We had a good car and kept fighting back all day long," Busch said after the race. "But, once we hit that debris it made the car really loose and I was doing the best I [could]. I still hoped we could finish in the top 10. I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn't enough and we ran out with two to go. It was just a really disappointing day."

Kenseth hates fuel mileage races, which is why the normally calm and subdued driver from Wisconsin was not happy Monday. He had better get used to it because the same thing can happen at New Hampshire.

"I don't know what to do about the fuel mileage," Kenseth said. "It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference. ... I wish they could figure out how to fix it because it is not a lot of fun."

Kenseth, Gordon and Busch still have time to recover from their slow starts, but Hamlin can pretty much be counted out of serious contention. He entered the Chase 12th and is still in that position, but much further behind in points heading to New England.

On the flip-side is Stewart, who entered the Chase 10th in the standings and in just one race has become an instant contender. It was at Michigan in mid-August when Stewart said in frustration that if he made the Chase he would "just be taking up a spot."

Stewart has gone from taking up a spot to being spot-on.

"I think after the last two weeks I feel a little bit better about it," he said. "There are some places that I am really concerned about coming up. Dover is probably the one place I am really concerned about. ... I would feel better if I thought we were really good at all 10 tracks we are going to.

"We had nowhere to go but up. It's still 10 weeks, but we needed every point we could get because we may have an off-week in the next nine weeks. So we're going to need everything we can get right now. I am real excited about going to New Hampshire."

Because each point is critical, Kevin Harvick understands the pressure on Kenseth, Gordon and Busch.

"Last year we lost the championship by 41 points and we missed second by two points ... so every point matters at this point because somebody's going to put 10 weeks together and make it happen," Harvick explained. "And if they don't then I'll be surprised."

The pressure is on those three right now, but things can change very quickly in the Chase.

"This is a 10-week dogfight," said Harvick. "You have to scratch and claw for everything that you can get your hands on and take some things away that you probably shouldn't have. The stage is already set. You can see the guys that are running good and the guys that aren't. That can change at any given minute just for the fact, like I say, you can show up to a racetrack and think it's your best track and not run worth a darn. That's just kind of the nature of the beast right now. One week is definitely not going to tell what's going to happen."

Even Monday's race winner realizes the fluid nature of the Chase, which is why Kenseth, Gordon and Busch are still serious contenders.

"One day doesn't change the whole season," Stewart said when asked about the impact of his win in the opener. "We've got nine races to go ... we've got nine more hard weeks. So this is one of 10. There's a lot that can happen and a lot that has to happen. So unless you guys know what the future is, I can't really answer that accurately."

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