By Bruce Martin
September 14, 2009

RICHMOND, Va. -- This may well be the year in which Jimmie Johnson's streak of consecutive Sprint Cup championships ends. Maybe Tony Stewart continues his impressive season to claim a third title and his first as an owner/driver. Or perhaps 50-year-old Mark Martin finally gets his first Cup championship. The next 10 races will tell the story, beginning Sunday at Loudon, N.H., but rest assured that three-time defending champion Johnson heads into the Chase with the target on his back, even if he doesn't see himself as the favorite.

"Maybe other people view it that way, but I live by the thought that that's last year, and right now, Denny [Hamlin] won the last race, and you go to Atlanta and it was Kasey [Kahne] and we haven't won since Indianapolis," said Johnson, who's attempting to become the first driver to win the series championship four years in a row. "Stats are great and all that stuff, but that was last year. If we take last year's setup to the tracks, we'll run 15th. It's what's going on right now. And nobody has had a clear advantage. I'm optimistic and feel we have a very good chance. We led a bunch at Michigan and didn't get it done. Bristol we were fast and had troubles. We have the speed. I look at what's coming up tomorrow and what we have done in the past."

In years past, Johnson was hitting his stride in the final races leading into the Chase. But at Richmond he actually used a profanity to say how his car ran in finishing 11th in the 400-lap race. "I just came off a [crappy] race, basically," Johnson said. "With all that in mind, I'm just not in a very good mood and just not happy how I ran tonight. It's going to be a tough Chase. The last two races have not gone as we had hoped, [but] we have some good tracks coming up for us. We'll have to see. To start a Chase, this is probably one of the most interesting starts we are going to have. I think it's anybody's championship right now."

There's no denying this may be the most competitive and wide-open fields in the history of the Chase. Martin is seeded first with four victories, Stewart is second with three and Johnson third, also with three wins. Hamlin, who scored his first-ever victory at his home track Saturday night, may be the hottest driver over the past month. He has six straight top-10 finishes and has finished in the top 10 in 10 of his last 12 starts. Throw in two-time winner Kahne, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, 2004 champion Kurt Busch, impressive Brian Vickers as well as Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle and there are plenty of drivers who could dethrone Johnson.

But Johnson fans shouldn't fret. With team owner Rick Hendrick's commitment and resources, and with crew chief Chad Knaus' know-how, this team understands how to excel in the playoffs better than any other team in NASCAR -- favorite label or not.

The smoke had barely cleared from race winner Denny Hamlin's burnout down the frontstretch at Richmond when Kurt Busch learned that his younger brother, Kyle, wouldn't be joining him in the Chase -- missing out on the 12th and final spot by a scant eight points.

"When I did hear that he didn't make it, I slid down and sat next to my car and thought for a moment what eight points means in this sport," Kurt said. "And I was on the fortunate side of winning the championship by eight points back in 2004. And to see my little brother not make it, it's devastating. "They had a great start to their season. They won at tracks that you expected them to win on. And then they struggled at tracks that we didn't expect them to struggle. And so eight points for him is tough.

"His sun will rise again, though. He will have a shot at coming back, and their season is not lost. They are still going to be one of the toughest guys to beat for wins, week in and week out, now that he's not even running for points, which fits his mentality. So this could be a good lesson learned that you don't have to win them all, but you have to run consistent. I'm sure he's been told that 100 times. But it's just tough to see the kid not make the Chase."

Had Kyle made it into the field, he would have immediately jumped to top of the standings with Mark Martin based on the 40 bonus points for the four victories they both had.

"Well, we did all we can do," Kyle said after finishing fifth. "...but it's not just tonight or it's not just last week that's kept us out. "It's been the past 26 races that, unfortunately some days I didn't do my best, and we didn't have the best cars or whatever it might have been. So you can look at a whole different scenario or a whole different slew of things but what it boils down to is we missed."

Considering that Tony Stewart concluded the 26-race "regular season with 3,806 points, it's hard to imagine that just eight points kept Busch out of the Chase. To try to analyze four points here and four points there over the course of an entire season would probably drive him crazy.

"You can look at Daytona in the spring," Busch recalled. "I got wrecked by guys that were fighting for the Lucky Dog. Matt Kenseth was one spot right behind me and made it through the wreck and won the race and he's sitting here at the loser table with me.

"Unfortunately we are here in this predicament but we will live to see another day. We'll go on for the rest of the year, both of us. It's not just one race that we can look at that we can pick instances. "I could have not have drove through Sam Hornish at Infineon, that cost me a good day there, too. It's just a slew of bad races."

Nearly overlooked in the battle for the last position in the Chase was Denny Hamlin's hometown victory at Richmond . As a youngster, he used to attend the NASCAR races with his family, who were season-ticket holders at the short track. The driver from nearby Chesterfield, put his victory into perspective by saying, "This is like a Daytona 500 win for anyone else. I mentioned before that I wanted to win this race before I won a 500, but now, of course, I know how special that race is to everyone. But this one in particular, to me, was -- especially after all the heartbreak; it makes it more gratifying to win now. It's by far the biggest win of my career and hopefully goes a long way for this race team over the next 10 weeks."

As impressive as Hamlin has been the last 12 races, there is no reason why he can't be a serious contender for the championship over the next 10 races. "The championship has always been in focus for us," Hamlin said. "That's our main goal."

Team owner Rick Hendrick calls 50-year-old Mark Martin "The Phenom." Martin's influence on the team owner has Hendrick working out and losing weight. And by making the Chase Martin feels a huge burden lifted and he leaps to the front of the standings based on his four victories in the first 26 races.

"I'm certainly going to enjoy that for a week," Martin said. "I feel like a whole new person, huge weight off my shoulders. It's just like I said before, to make this thing is the icing and now we get to go race for the cake."

While Martin is the sentimental choice to win the Cup title, he remains pragmatic about what it takes to win a championship. "Anybody in this Chase can win this Chase," Martin said. "Every team that's in it is capable of putting together a 10-race row. That's all it takes is the magic 10 races, and anybody can win it."

"I think he's happy. Rocket science." -- Tony Stewart when asked how Denny Hamlin feels by winning a Cup race for the first time on his home track.

"Oh, dude, you have to see some of my dreams. That doesn't even scratch the surface of my wildest dreams. No, it's not even close to my wildest dreams." -- Tony Stewart when asked if this season went beyond his wildest dreams.

While NASCAR kicks off the Chase at New Hampshire, the driver who is able to get off to a fast start can set the agenda for the 10-race playoff but it doesn't mean he will be there long. In 2007, Jeff Burton was the leader at the halfway point of the Chase before Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon zoomed past him in the races that followed. But to a driver that gets off to a bad start at New Hampshire, they can end their Chase before it really begins, such as what happened to Kyle Busch last year.

But while the Chase is about to begin, I'll be at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan as the IndyCar Series championship battle is down to two races. It will be my second trip to Japan and a chance to experience an intriguing culture and the polite nature of the Japanese race fans, who wait for hours for autographs and bring gifts to the drivers.

While being in Japan is a worthwhile experience, what I don't look forward to is getting up at 3 a.m. on Tuesday to make a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago, and then sit around for four hours before boarding another plane for the 16-hour flight to Tokyo. Once the plane lands, it's time to hop on a bus for a three-hour ride to Utsunomiya, just in time to get a few hours of sleep for the 5 a.m. bus ride to the track.

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