Friday, October 13, 2006

The Chase Tightens

For those of you who have read this blog before, you have probably figured out at least two things:
1. I am an amateur. I write about what I like about racing.
2. I don't read the previews written by the pros, so as not to influence my writing, until after I have posted my own preview.
That means that I often screw up on some of the stats, and that you should never use my preview to influence your picks if you are playing a fantasy game.

Lowe's Motor Speedway, near Charlotte North, Carolina is sometimes known as the "House of Jimmie." Jimmie as in Jimmie Johnson, who, by all accounts, is still pissed about Talladega. There is a good reason for this--he has won 5 out of the last seven races there.
He will have to work for a win Saturday night.
There are now eight drivers who are in points range of having a very good chance at winning the championship. This is not due to the results of Brian Vickers' questionable passing techniques last week at Talladega, but because Jeff Burton, the points leader, cut a tire during the final laps of the race, and had to pit, causing him to finish far away from the front, which in turn tightened up the points.
So we have what could be called a "do-over" for most of the Chase drivers, which should keep things interesting. In fact, between Jeff Burton, in first place, and Mark Martin in third, there is only a ten-point difference.
Kasey Kahne, due to his second place finish at Talladega, and the circumstances affecting nearly all the other championship chasers, is mathematically still in the running. His Everham #9 team has been strong this year on the 1.5-mile tracks, dominating the World (Pepsi) 600 at Charlotte earlier this year. If he gets a top five finish Saturday night, we may be able to say that he has made his way back into the realm of Championship favorites.
Mark Martin absolutely loves the track He seems to be having fun during the Chase for the Championship, and has had some very consistent finishes. He wants to win at Lowe's, and, with the determination of the #6 team, a win could be a reality.
Jeff Burton will want to defend his points lead, and he has the ability to do it. We have already noticed the comradary and the teamwork evident in the three RCR teams of Burton, Harvick, and Bowyer. Driving ability depends on attitude, and, this year, with Burton and Harvick both in the Chase, the attitude couldn't be better. Burton is on a roll, after just recently winning his first victory in four years, and having consistently finished well in every Chase race except for Talladega. The RCR intermediate track program is strong, and that strength will ensure that if Burton loses his points lead, it will not be by much.
Of the RCR teams, Kevin Harvick's #29 team has the best record on intermediate tracks. He has matured into a very smart driver, and he has a very smart crew chief in Todd Berrier. Tires will be more of a factor than at Kansas City, and fuel mileage less, as we generally tend to see more caution periods at Charlotte than we have seen at KC. A smart crew chief will take advantage of these factors.
Which brings us back to Jimmie Johnson, whose crew chief Chad Knaus is one of the smartest. Knaus has a handle on the track at Charlotte, when it comes to set up and strategy, both before and after last year's notorious "levigating" and subsequent resurfacing. It is almost a given that Johnson can pull off another win Saturday night. But, as tough as the competition is this year, it will not be easy.
Much of that competition will come from Johnson's own Hendrick Motor Sports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. We'll leave Brian Vickers out of this, except to mention that his penchant to win at any cost is business as usual for all of the HMS drivers. There is no question that if Gordon or Busch see an opportunity to win the race, they will not hesitate to pull a bump and run on Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr has also shown a lot of determination and strength with his #8 DEI team. He has had some finishes, which are not that strong, but his main weakness has been on the intermediate tracks. That problem has seemed to have been corrected this year, and if the perennial Most Popular Driver can stay out of trouble, he can run up front, and stay there. The team, with crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. is steadily melding, and a good finish Saturday is another step on the way to being a strong contender at the final race of the season in November, at Homestead.
Denny Hamlin is another Chase driver who has had some bad luck in the last two races, mostly due to not having a good set up on his car. It is hard to believe that Mike Ford, his crew chief cannot fix that problem. Hamlin has shown that he can take a twentieth place car to a top ten finish, but all he has to do at Charlotte is to do what he has been doing best--just drive. The #11 team can step up, and Hamlin should have a good car this weekend.
Some one else who can just drive the way he does is Matt Kenseth. After an uncharacteristic missed set up at Kansas City, he came back strong, with a sixth place finish at Talladega. Kenseth can drive well on any track, and is my pick to win Saturday.
There will be the non-chasers out there who also want to win, but because of the closeness of points among the top ten, the racing will be mostly between the Chasers, as they each try to finish ahead of the others. This will bring the field of ten up front, and it may be difficult for the other drivers to get a chance to race them without risking taking them out, which, as Brian Vickers and his fans can tell you, it is a big no-no.
We do expect, however, Vickers, Tony Stewart, Scott Riggs, Elliott Sadler, Clinton Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, and Dave Blaney all to be in the mix and give the Championship chasers some competition.
Here is another attempt on my part to outsmart Lady Luck--my predictions for the top ten finishing positions in Saturday's Cup race:
1. Matt Kenseth
2. Kasey Kahne
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Mark Martin
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Carl Edwards
7. Kyle Busch
8. Dale Ernhardt, Jr
9. Jeff Burton
10. Denny Hamlin

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