Chase to the Chase is gonna get wild

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Welcome to the most diverse portion of the Sprint Cup schedule.

Over the next 11 weeks the series will travel to two road courses, two 1.5-mile tracks, a superspeedway, a 2-mile oval, a 2.5-mile triangle, a 1-mile track, a three-quarter-mile track, a half-mile track and a 2.5-mile rectangular oval that also happens to be one of the most storied tracks in motorsports.

The Chase should be so lucky, but that's a story for another day. (But when it's written, the Chase will begin at Indianapolis and include a road course.)

Beginning with Sunday's race in Sonoma, Calif., this stretch may be more exciting than the upcoming Chase because 20 to 26 drivers still believe they have a chance to compete for the championship, as opposed to 12 after the 10-race playoff begins.

This year's chase to the Chase has the potential to be the best since NASCAR went to a playoff in 2004. Kurt Busch in 20th place and Tony Stewart in 10th are separated by a mere 33 points.

A year ago, the difference between 20th and 10th was 83 points. The year before it was 79.

Prior to that, NASCAR used another points system, and it would require a degree in subatomic physics to determine if it was closer than it is today. But for the sake of argument, at this point in 2004, positions 20th and 10th were separated by a full race and a half based on the maximum points a driver could get.

So why is it closer this year?

NASCAR might argue the Gen-6 has leveled the competition. That a single-car team such as Furniture Row Racing remains in the mix is a testament to that.

Because the new car can be built more quickly with prestamped parts more like a model car, the lower-budget teams can spend more time on setups and research. Having a top-5 talent such as Busch behind the wheel doesn't hurt, either.

Having fewer overall teams helps as well because there is more talent -- from driver to mechanic -- today on lower-budget teams than there was five years ago.

"I think you're on the right point," said Greg Biffle, coming off a win at Michigan. "This sport continues to get more competitive and more competitive every single race.

"As we narrow the box down, it seems like … each team gets more competitive and closer in that it becomes more difficult and we end up getting literally on top of each other."

It's like the National Football League in that the difference between the worst team in the league and the best often is only a couple of players. That's why you see so many upsets and games that are closer than the records indicate they should be.

NASCAR hasn't quite reached that level. There's still a big gap between the top teams at Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, which have won nine of 15 races, and the next level of teams. There's a big gap between points leader Jimmie Johnson and most of the field on a weekly basis -- period.

But the gap between 20th and fifth isn't nearly as big as it once was. Busch is only 72 points behind Kenseth in fifth. A year ago, the difference between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in 20th and Denny Hamlin in fifth was 139.

The year before that the difference between 20th and fifth was 127.

"That's a good example of going from having a 20th-place car that you can hardly drive to having a fifth-place car," Biffle said. "The window is so small, such small adjustments, and these cars are very, very sensitive.

"Because we've optimized to about every point on the car, the same thing is happening in the points. We're so fine-tuned that a little bit either way can move you way up and down in points or can put you from running in a top-5 car to running 20th, and you're wondering what in the world is wrong with my car."

Stewart is a prime example. Ten races into the season he was 22nd in points and couldn't sniff a top-10. Through testing, tweaking and a lot of soul-searching his team has a win and three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

Things can go the other way, too. JGR won five of the first 11 races and dominated the series in laps led. After backing off in power the past two weeks to focus on engine durability, the organization hasn't led a lap or had a finish better than fourth.

That makes the closeness of 20 to five that much more intriguing. There likely will be a lot more movement than normal in and out of the top 10, beginning with Sonoma.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to be dreading this weekend. He's seventh in the standings, only 32 points ahead of 11th-place Paul Menard, with two blown engines in his past four races, and headed to one of his worst tracks on the schedule.

In 13 career starts at Sonoma, NASCAR's most popular driver has no top-10s and an average finish of 22.2. He has gone 41st and 23rd in his last two trips there.

"We know the reality of the situation is I don't have a top-10 finish here," Earnhardt said. "We just have to see what we can do."

Hamlin can't be thrilled, either. He's finished 34th or worse in his past six road-course races and is further outside the top 20 -- 85 points to 76 -- than when he returned after missing four races with an injured back.

Busch probably can't wait to get to California wine country, with a first and third for two different teams in his past two Sonoma starts. A victory would put him right in the middle of the wild-card race and back in position for a run at the top 10.

Stewart, Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya have to be licking their chops, too. Stewart has seven career road-course victories and has been in the top 10 in five of the past six at Sonoma as he looks to solidify himself in the top 10.

Gordon's nine road-course wins are the most in Cup history, and he's finished ninth or better in the past seven races at Sonoma. Sixteenth in the standings, he needs to capitalize on that.

This is do-or-die time for Ambrose and Montoya, 23rd and 22nd in points. Two of the best road-course racers today, they can get into the wild-card hunt with a win at Sonoma and another at Watkins Glen.

Ambrose in particular has to be excited. He's finished eighth or better in the past nine road-course races with two victories at the Glen. Montoya had a win and two sixth-place finishes and a 10th in his first four trips to Sonoma.

As you can see, this has the potential to be the best portion of the schedule with the standings closer than ever.

It also could have an adverse effect when it comes to aggressiveness and going for wins. Drivers could become more cautious, understanding a bottom-10 finish is more penalizing than a top-10 is rewarding. There were only two cautions a year ago at Sonoma as Clint Bowyer led 72 of 112 laps for his first road-course win.

"These next [11] weeks, guys that are on that bubble like me have to get all we can, but we just can't make mistakes," Biffle said.

It all begins at Sonoma, the most diverse part of the schedule.

Maybe one day the Chase will have a run like this, but that's a story for another day.