Tuesday, September 12, 2006

That Awesome 10

The "Race for the Chase" lived up to everything it was billed as. The 26th race of the season determined the ten drivers who would compete for the Cup championship over the last ten races, and it really did go right down to the wire.
Tony Stewart, the reigning champion needed to finish twelth or better to make the chase. He didn't make it, but, as Michael Waltrip and Ken Schrader pointed out on Speed TV's Inside Nextel Cup, under the old rules he wouldn't have had a chance to repeat, anyway.
It was a tough season, this year, one of the best over the past 10 years, and, as Tony so graciously pointed out, the ten who made it are "awesome."

The Awesome Ten

Kasey Kahne had to make it in. The top winner during the regular season, with five wins, certainly deserves a chance at the championship. Going into the race at Richmond, he was out of the top ten by a mere 12 points. He did what he had to do to make it in, and did so with class. No one else, driving a Dodge had a chance. Kahne has been known to be a racer of tremendous talent even in his rookie year, but was always an also-ran until he got his first win in 2005, at Richmond. A championship for him could be his first of many.
I have to admit, I am a reverse Jeff Gordon fan. I mean he is the driver I "love to hate." Admit it--every fan has one of those. Gordon is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, with seventy-seven carreer Cup wins and four Cup Championships. This is the fifth year he has strived in his "Drive for Five," and we somehow wish that he would get his fifth championship just to get it over with. It is exciting that he is in the Chase, because to watch him when he is at the top of his game is like viewing a work of art. As much as I love to hate him, I love to watch him race. However, it still seems as if his team is inconsistant in building and setting up a car he can feel comfortable in. There will be no "Mulligans" this year--every race will count, and the 24 team needs to be more consistant than it has been all season in order to be a serious Championship contender.
Jeff Burton's move from Roush Racing to Richard Childress Racing in 2005 turned out to be the shot in the arm needed by both the driver and the team. After the long dry spell for Childress, since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, the entire RCR organization has seen a dramatic revitalization. The enthusiasm of the team can be seen in Burton, Bowyer and Harvick whenever they are seen together. If it weren't for the presence of Burton's former Roush teammate, Mark Martin, in the Chase, Burton would clearly be the sentimental favorite. Burton, himself has had a long dry spell when it comes to winning--his last Cup win was in 2002--but he has led many a lap this season, and has shown himself to be a strong and determined driver. If determination is what it takes to be the Champion, Burton could be Da Man.
When one thinks natural talent, one thinks Denny Hamlin. He shocked the world this summer by winning the race in his first time on the Pocono circuit.Pocono, by any measure, is a difficult track, much more so for a rookie. But Hamlin proved that it was no fluke, when he won again at Pocono in July, making it look easy. We knew that Hamlin was destined for greatness when he first started driving a Cup car for Joe Gibbs Racing at the very end of last season, gaining a top ten finish in five of the seven races he participated in. Hamlin isn't the first rookie to make the top ten--Tony Stewart did so in 1999, and Kevin Harvick finished his debut year in 2001 in ninth place--but he is the first rookie to do so in the Chase format. Like Jimmie Johnson, he has a knack for coming back from early race set-backs. He still makes rookie errors, sometimes running over other cars, but his style is so smooth his mistakes are hardly noticed. He wasn't planning on making the top ten his first full-time year, but it just happened that way. It could just happen that he would be the first rookie Champion in a long, long time.
Mark Martinhas never won a championship in NASCAR, though he has been in Cup for twenty-four of the last twenty-five years. He has however, finished the season in the top five in championship points fifteen times. He has won more races in the NASCAR Cup series than any other current driver except Jeff Gordon. This is probably his last full time season in theCup series, and it would be great to see him retire on top. Count on Martin to be the sentimental favorite to win the Championship this year. It would probably be the most popular Championship ever, and the celebration would undoubtably be a very emotional one.
Kyle Busch, whom some claim to be an escapee from Area 51, is another man of extrordinary talent. He has proven at a very young age--in fact he is the youngest Cup race winner in the history of NASCAR--that he is one hell of a racer. He had to overcome the over-aggressiveness to which he was prone in order to be a serious contender, and, with some help from the aforementioned Tony "Smoke" Stewart, he did. In fact, he matured ratherquickly, culminating in a very entertaining race Saturday with Kevin Harvick for nearly every lap at Richmond. The fact that he didn't wreck anybody, as he was wont to do in the past, proved that "The Schrub" has grown into a serious Championship contender.
Dale Earnhardt,Jr the perennial fan favorite, has made it back into the Chase this year, after missing it last year, to the great dissappointment of many a NASCAR fan. It took him time to adapt to the aero-tire package which came into effect in 2005, but adapt he did, proving to his detracters that he is, indeed, a talented driver. Overcoming many setbacks during the regular season, including two back-to-back DNFs, he overcame adversity, and, with help from some outstanding pit strategy, held his place in the top ten. He is not the same type of driver his father was--aggression on his part seems to embarrass him. Nor does he demonstrate the smooth patience of a Mark Martin. But, he is agile in his car handling, and does belong in the position he is in now. Unfortunately for the number 8 team, inconsistancy and trademark bad luck may be his downfall during the last ten races.
Kevin Harvick is due a championship. We have seen him mature from a brash, cocky, arrogant rookie to the polished professional he is today. He seems to be able to will his car through traffic, almost toying with the competition in a very Tony Stewart-like fashion. Once he is in front, he is hard to catch and even harder to pass. Though not, by himself, a fan favorite, Kevlana, the inseparable combination of Kevin and his wife, Delana, is very popular, and there are many who would like to see him get the Cup.
I hope this doesn't come across as throwing Jimmie Johnson "under the bus," but he wouldn't be where he is if it wasn't for the outstanding Chad Knaus and the entire #48 team. Though he is indeed a very talented and skilled driver, he has a knack for creating his own bad luck, being aggressive in both chopping and blocking. But the Lowe's Chevrolet team is the best example of teamwork on the track, and has consistantly overcome Johnson's self-inflicted bad luck with uncommon ease and skill. Johnson is one of the best drivers in the business, but he needs to polish his skills some, before he can be considered one of the greats. Still, it would be nice to see him get a Championship, as he has come so close in the past three years only to fall behind at the crucial moment.
If any of today's drivers could be compared to one of the past Masters, it would be Matt Kenseth, compared to David Pearson. If not the driver with the most wins in NASCAR history--he is second only to Richard Petty--Pearson has the highest winning percentage of all time. Kenseth's skills seem to mirror those of the "Silver Fox." as Pearson was known, quietly and patiently waiting for the right moment and seemingly coming out of nowhere. Kenseth is a past champion, and is undoubtably right up there in ability with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. He is my pick for the Championship, and, since NASCAR illegitimized his first championship in order to placate NBC and the sponsers, he has a chance to prove that he can win under any rules NASCAR wants to place. Let's watch him do it!
Indeed, we have seen some of the best racing we have seen in years, and I have a feeling the Chase will maintain the level of excitement this season has brought.

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