Gathering for a group photo in the infield of Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night, the 10 NASCAR drivers who will compete in the Chase for the Nextel Cup eyed each other warily, like poker players over a high-stakes pot. You could almost hear their thoughts float through the cool night air: What have you been holding back, Kurt Busch? How hard are you going to push it, Tony Stewart? What tricks are you going to pull, Greg Biffle? And what about you, Jimmie Johnson, how many chances are you going to take?
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered over these next 10 weeks," said Matt Kenseth. "Anybody can win this."
When 2004 Nextel Cup champion Busch beat '03 champ Kenseth to the finish line at Richmond, the checkered flag waved on NASCAR's 26-race regular season. For those two drivers, and for the other eight who qualified for the playoff-style Chase (box, page 102), the season begins anew on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H., the first event in a 10-race sprint to the title (box, page 104). One driver, Ryan Newman, sneaked into the Chase field at the last minute: Eleventh in the standings, one point behind Jamie McMurray, heading to Richmond, he finished 12th in the race and leapfrogged McMurray (who crashed and came in 40th and fell to 13th) for the 10th spot. Under NASCAR's old format Newman would be a hopeless 661 points behind the leader, Stewart, with 10 races left, but under the Chase format he is only 45 back. (Point totals are recalibrated so that only five points separate each driver from the one behind him.)
NASCAR's two biggest stars--Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon--failed to qualify and have to settle for battling McMurray, Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick for 11th place and the consolation prize of $1 million. Meanwhile, such up-and-comers as Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers can still make their bones by beating the big boys.
All eyes, though, will be on the Chase drivers. Leading the way is regular-season champ Stewart, who won five of seven races between June 26 and Aug. 14 and finished 185 points ahead of Biffle in the standings. Stewart's sizzling summer actually started on the first Monday and Tuesday in June, when the Home Depot team tested at Michigan International Speedway. During that session crew chief Greg Zipadelli hit on a setting for the car's suspension that enabled Stewart to stay on the throttle through the turns longer than his competitors. But Stewart's mechanical advantage has appeared to wane in recent weeks--he hasn't finished among the top four in the last month--and there's a sense in the garage that the field has caught up to him.
"Technology bleeds out in our sport," says Mark Martin, who starts the Chase in sixth place. "After seven or eight races of one guy dominating, other teams start to figure out the secret."
"I feel like we've caught [Stewart's] team," says Biffle, a top three finisher in each of the last three races. "But you don't have to win every race to win the championship. It's the guy who doesn't have any major failures and finishes sixth or better in every race who's going to win it all."
That's pretty much how Kurt Busch won the Cup last year. By his own admission he didn't show his competitors how fast his number 97 Ford was capable of consistently running in '04 until the start of the Chase. Then he won the first race of the playoff, in Loudon, and went on to collect nine top 10 finishes, best in the Chase. Busch credited his late surge largely to the fact that he saved four test sessions--NASCAR allots teams nine per season--for the final 2 1/2 months, more than any other driver in the series. Each test allows a team to spend up to two days at a track trying out different setups. And while most teams last year used the majority of their tests during the regular season to ensure a Chase berth, Busch and his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, gambled by waiting to use the extra practice time during the Chase, a strategy that the team stayed with this year.
The drivers who narrowly made this year's Chase--Newman (two tests remaining), Kenseth (two), Carl Edwards (one) and Jeremy Mayfield (none)--burned most or all of their tests during the regular season, which puts them at a disadvantage now. The majority of the drivers who comfortably cruised into the second season--Stewart (three tests left), Biffle (four), Johnson (four), Kurt Busch (five) and Martin (four)--all have ample practice time. "Teams are copying what we did last year," says Busch. "I think everyone realizes it's important to make a statement in that first race."
Sunday's Sylvania 300 is particularly significant to the drivers entering the Chase in slumps. Johnson, for instance, held the top spot in the standings for 16 of the first 20 races, then lost his lead--and his momentum--on Aug. 7 when he slammed into the wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway late in the Allstate 400. Johnson wasn't seriously hurt, but since then his average finish is a pedestrian 21.7. He has won two of the last five races in Loudon, and a momentum-generating top 10 run at the one-mile flat track would enhance his title hopes. "I'm most worried about the 20 car [Stewart] and all the Roush cars," says Johnson. "I mean, Roush has half the field."
Indeed, all five Roush Racing drivers--Biffle, Martin, Kurt Busch, Edwards and Kenseth--are in the Chase. Over the next 10 weeks owner Jack Roush plans to meet each Tuesday with all of his crew chiefs in his Concord, N.C., headquarters to discuss setups and race strategies. This policy of sharing information at the Roush empire is one reason many observers are touting Biffle, the most successful of the Roush drivers, as the man to beat.
Biffle is tied with Stewart for most victories this season (five), but two recent races in which he didn't take the checkered flag indicated that he's got what it takes to be the 2005 Nextel Cup champion. On Aug. 21 in Brooklyn, Mich., Biffle's number 16 Ford overheated early in the race, forcing him to lay off the throttle. He dropped all the way to last. But as soon as his engine temperature returned to normal, Biffle blasted back into the lead pack and finished sixth. In Bristol, Tenn., the next week he cut a tire early in the race, went a lap down, yet still wound up third. Did either of those finishes put fans on their feet? No. Did they show that Biffle possesses the raw speed and resiliency of a champion? Absolutely.
"Those were two title runs right there," says Biffle. "If we keep doing that, we'll be fine."
THE TEN DRIVERS
Here's Lars Anderson's prediction for the final Nextel Cup standings
1 GREG BIFFLE (regular-season standing: second)
Roush Racing's winningest driver enters the Chase in top form: In his last four starts Biffle's worst finish was sixth. Also, one edge he has over his primary challenger, Tony Stewart, is four teammates in the Chase to Stewart's none. Roush teams will share setup notes and help each other on the track. It all adds up to a title for car number 16.
2 TONY STEWART (first)
Garage insiders don't believe Stewart's midseason dominance (in one stretch he won five of seven races) will carry over into the Chase. The rest of the field has been catching up to the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Stewart hasn't finished higher than fifth since Aug. 14.
3 KURT BUSCH (fifth)
The defending champ enters the Chase two spots higher than he did last year, but a repeat will be tough. Since Busch announced last month that he would leave Roush for Penske Racing at the end of 2006, team morale and consistency has suffered.
4 MATT KENSETH (tied for eighth)
The 2003 champ enters the Chase with as much momentum as any driver. Since June 12 he has climbed 16 spots in the points (winning at Bristol on Aug. 27). Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser know what it takes to win a title; this team won't fold under pressure.
5 JIMMIE JOHNSON (fourth)
He began the regular season hot (four straight top fives) and ended it cold (no higher than 10th in the last four races). But don't forget: The streaky Johnson rallied late in 2004, winning four of the last six Chase races, plus he saved four of his test dates for the next 10 races.
6 MARK MARTIN (sixth)
Here's his strategy: Finish as high as possible without taking risks in the first eight Chase races, then aggressively go for wins at Phoenix (where his average finish of 9.1 is the best in the Chase field) and Homestead (three top fives, also best among the 10 drivers).
7 RUSTY WALLACE (third)
If he's still in the hunt after the first four races, Rusty's Last Call could well be for champagne. At the tracks hosting the fifth, sixth and seventh events--Charlotte, Martinsville and Atlanta, respectively--Wallace has a total of 11 career victories.
8 RYAN NEWMAN (10th)
Is the Rocket Man set to blast off, or will the aerodynamics of this year's Dodge Charger, which make the car a handful in traffic, ground him? Usually quick in qualifying, Newman has an average finish of only 24.2 for his last six starts.
9 CARL EDWARDS (tied for eighth)
Here are two things to expect from Edwards, who is in only his first full season of Cup racing: He'll win at least one race (he took two checkered flags in the regular season), and he'll finish 30th or worse at least twice (he did that five times).
10 JEREMY MAYFIELD (seventh)
Though he avoids terrible finishes as well as anyone in the field--he has wound up 30th or worse only once in 2005--Mayfield is fighting the same aerodynamic woes as fellow Dodge driver Newman, and he doesn't have the horsepower to be a serious contender.
THE TEN RACES
NEW HAMPSHIRE INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
Loudon, N.H. - This race set the tone for the inaugural Chase: Kurt Busch won and never looked back.
DOVER INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
Dover, Del. - The favorite? Tony Stewart, with nine top fives on the Monster Mile, including two wins.
Talladega, Ala. - The standings could get shuffled if the usual 'Dega Big One--a multicar crash--occurs.
Kansas City, Kans. - The first of five 1.5-mile tracks should reveal who will be strong the rest of the way.
UAW-GM QUALITY 500
LOWE'S MOTOR SPEEDWAY
Charlotte - Jimmie Johnson has won the last three points races at his sponsor's namesake track.
Martinsville, Va. - Rusty Wallace has seven wins on the .526-mile oval, the shortest track in the Chase.
BASS PRO SHOPS MBNA 500
ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY
Atlanta - Carl Edwards won the spring race here as three Roush cars finished in the top four.
TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, Fort Worth, Texas
Jimmie Johnson's average finish at this track is 6.5, tops among the Chase drivers.
CHECKER AUTO PARTS 500
PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY
Phoenix - The key here is handling. Kurt Busch's car was dialed in when he won the spring race.
HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY, Homestead, Fla.
It's the finale: Expect bumps, blocks and last-lap heroics. Greg Biffle won here in '04.
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME
These close-but-no-Chase drivers will be turning their eyes to 2006
Every driver who missed the Chase is going to spend the rest of this season trying to pull a Biffle. After failing to make last year's inaugural championship field, Greg Biffle and his crew used those final 10 races to test setups on his car--and hit the jackpot. Biffle had three top 10s in the last seven races of 2004, including a win in the finale at Homestead, and has five victories in '05.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (right), who has struggled with handling and horsepower issues all season, sinking to 17th in the standings, has already said that he views the final 10 races as glorified test sessions. Other top drivers going back to the drawing board are Jeff Gordon (12th in points), who won three of this year's first nine races but has battled handling problems and horrendous luck ever since, and Elliott Sadler (11th), who also appeared set to make the Chase through the first third of the season but ran into his own stretch of misfortune and setup issues.
And consider poor Jamie McMurray (left): Last year he missed the Chase by 15 points. This year he came into last Saturday 's race at Richmond in 10th place, one point ahead of Ryan Newman, but crashed late in the race and ended up--appropriately enough--13th.