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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chase Roundup: New Hampshire

1. Kevin Harvick (Finished first at New Hampshire)-A near perfect weekend for the 29 team: Winning the pole, leading practices, and dominating on Sunday for his second straight win. Harvick is an excellent driver that is getting consistently great cars. At this point it is hard to find a weak track for Harvick.

Circle the date: Phoenix. After winning earlier at Phoenix, Richmond and now New Hampshire, Harvick is the current flat-track ace.

Next week: Harvick finished third at Dover in June for his second top five and fifth career top ten. Not traditionally a strong track although all three Childress cars ran well in June.

2. Denny Hamlin -35points (4th at New Hampshire)-Another solid finish means Hamlin is not staying under the radar. Hamlin will need more top fives if he wants to be around during the second half of the Chase.

Circle the Date: Martinsville. Normally a daunting track for rookies, Hamlin has raced here for most of his racing career. Gibbs is also usually strong at the paperclip-shaped track.

Up next: Hamlin finished 11th in June in his only start at Dover. He does have two top tens in the Busch series.
3. Matt Kenseth -41 points (10th at New Hampshire)-Kenseth struggled mightily the first two thirds of the race, and still stole a top ten. Now he moves to Dover where he won in June. To have a bad day, lose your breaks and still finish tenth, plus lead a lap is pretty solid. And solid is the word that best sums up the 17 team.

Circle the Date: Homestead. It is hard seeing Kenseth not in contention entering the finale. He’s solid to good at every track, and could probably even afford a mulligan somewhere.

Up Next: Kenseth won the June race this year, but Dover hasn’t been kind to the 17 historically. Kenseth has crashed at the last two fall races, effectively ruining his Chase hopes.

4. Jeff Gordon -50 points (3rd at New Hampshire)-How can Gordon run so poorly at Richmond and the next week spend the entire race in the top 5 at New Hampshire? For the 24’s sake, it doesn’t matter now. Loudon could have been a landmine for Gordon.

Circle the Date: Texas. Gordon has never won at Texas, Phoenix or Homestead. Texas is especially a struggle. A top ten is a necessity here if he wants his fifth Cup.

Up Next: Gordon dominated the June race early, leading 81 laps before tailing off to 12th. In his last five starts, he has three sub 35 finishes. He also has four career wins.

5. Jeff Burton -64 (6th at New Hampshire)-Another solid day for Burton, but there is still room for improvement. He led some laps and finished in the top ten. Once again he slid in the standings late in the race.

Circle the Date: Phoenix-

6. Mark Martin -75 (11th at New Hampshire)-Martin hung around the top ten all day and finished a decent eleventh. The key for the 6 team is their pit stops. Several good runs were spoiled by bad stops or mistakes.

Circle the Date: Atlanta. Martin has had dominant runs at the fastest track, including a solid second this spring. He deserves one more win before quasi-retirement.

Up next: Martin led 39 laps early at Dover only to lose the handle later in the race. He finished 9th, but had a better car. He has five straight top tens at Dover, including four top fives.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr -81 (13th at New Hampshire)-Junior was upset after the race and he should be. He had a top five car for the majority of the race, but tailed off at the end. With other drivers having problems, a top five was a reasonable goal, a top ten crucial. The eight team got neither. The past month the team has excelled at improving the car throughout the race, but they missed on Sunday.

Circle the Date: Kansas. Junior has run very well at flat tracks like Chicago, Michigan and California this year. He must take advantage and shoot for a win.

Next week: Earnhardt Jr grinded out a tenth place finish in June. Historically Dover is a mixed bag for the team. He won in 2001, but has also struggled at times. A tenth place finish is key, especially after coughing up a good day at Loudon. The Bud team must keep within striking distance heading into the last five races.

8. Kasey Kahne -110 (16th at New Hampshire)-A fast car was doomed by a flat tire. It wasn’t the flat tire as much as staying out too long on the flat. Kahne gained two spots in the standings. If he can make it past Talladega without a major setback the tracks play out well for the 9.
Circle the Date: Lowe’s. The second 1.5 mile track in the Chase marks the start of four tracks where Kahne has a good chance at winning. Like everyone, he must slip past Talladega without incident.

Next week: Kahne finished 7th this summer at Dover. He hasn’t finished well at Dover, although he was leading the summer race in ’04 before hitting oil and wrecking.

9. Jimmie Johnson -139 (39th at New Hampshire)-Even without the crash, Johnson’s day was doomed by a lost cylinder. He may have raced longer, but the finish would have been similar. The good news is Johnson had similar problems in 2004 and then won 4 races to have a chance heading to Homestead. He still is excellent at Dover, Talladega, Lowe’s, Martinsville, and Atlanta. He is in a hole for sure, but not buried.

Circle the Date: Talladega. Johnson has two wins at plate tracks this year, finally erasing several incidents in previous races. Johnson can’t afford another dust-up that results in a poor finish.

Next week: Johnson won last year’s fall race at Dover with tricked up shocks. This summer he fell a lap down, spun out and still finished in the top ten.

10. Kyle Busch -146 (38th at New Hampshire)-Most drivers in the Chase have their strong tracks where top 5’s are essential. Busch squandered one of his on Sunday. It’s not impossible, but he is nearly a full race behind Harvick already.

Circle the Date: Dover. Busch has finished in the top five in all three trips to Dover. He must do so to recoup some of the points he lost this week.

Up Next: Busch finished second in last fall’s race which turned into Shockgate ‘05. This summer he led 22 laps before finishing 5th.

Other Notes:
-Didn’t NASCAR announce plans to reduce the number of cars an owner can have? The plan called for a cap at four cars. Instead of reducing cars, Roush Racing is apparently expanding. Boris Said’s No Fear team is basically a satellite team for Roush. They get cars, and engineering support. Now they may get Mark Martin to drive select races next year. Of course Roush is simply following the same plan that other multi-car teams do. Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines and support to the Haas and MB2 teams. Gibbs Racing basically supplied everything except the sponsor for the rookie Hall of Fame team. In other words, NASCAR talks big about rule changes, but doesn’t really have a grip on things.

-Dave Blaney scored his second straight top ten of the season. Blaney's team is obviously improving as the season moves on and they have a lot going for them. Barring some kind of alliance or transaction, Blaney's 22 team is the only Toyota team with a guaranteed spot in the top 35 in 2007 (Dale Jarrett has a Champion's provisional). His team is already established and further along than any of the startup teams, allowing a large head start on their program. And finally after three years without manufacturer support, Bill Davis Racing will have the full backing from Toyota next year. Blaney has recently shown what he can do in an under-supported car, so it's not a stretch to think he can be in the top 20 in points. That would be a big improvement over the past few years.

-Jeff Gordon complained Sunday about teammate Brian Vickers racing him too hard. Gordon has taken issue with each of his three teammates at different times this year. Either TV tries to overplay this issue, or Gordon feels a false sense of entitlement. Vickers had a better car and passed Gordon cleanly. There is nothing wrong with that whether you are in the Chase or not.

-Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon both completed a race at New Hampshire without incident. It marked the first time since July of 2005. Waltrip even scored a top 25. Congrats boys!

-Tired Topics Covered this week by the mainstream media: Does Jimmie Johnson's crash ruin his Chase chances? Will anyone catch Kevin Harvick and his blessed momentum? Why can't Jeff Burton finish a race strong? Thankfully the Mayfield-Evernham news cycle has ended.