Fast start at Loudon would do wonders for Chase contenders

Winning isn't everything, not when you're trying to win the Nextel Cup.

Consider this little tidbit: The driver who won the most races in the Chase never has won the championship.

When the 10-race playoff begins Sunday at New Hampshire, the No. 1 goal for the 12 contenders isn't to win the race; the goal is to finish the race, hopefully in the top 10.

NASCAR took a step in the right direction this season by adding emphasis to winning races in the events before the Chase began. Drivers were seeded by wins, with each victory worth 10 bonus points.

The drivers who knew they were in the Chase spent the past month going all out to win races. It was fun to watch.

But it's back to conservative mode now. Time to play it safe. The way to win the Chase is to avoid mistakes and bad finishes.

"Those of us locked in were not racing for a consistent top-5 or top-10," said Jeff Gordon, who starts the Chase in second place, 20 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson. "It was all about getting those bonus points for victories. However, now it's time to race consistently."

Getting off to a good start this weekend helps, but Johnson proved last year that it isn't a requirement.

Johnson finished 39th on the 1-mile New Hampshire oval last year but overcame it to win the Chase. It wasn't easy. He had a victory and four second-place finishes in the next six races.

"The pressure and intensity really ramps up in the final 10," Johnson said. "Everything you've done was to get in this position. Now the pressure really, really magnifies."

The first two Chase champs got a big momentum boost off the New Hampshire race. Tony Stewart finished second at Loudon in 2005. Kurt Busch won the Chase opener in 2004.

"The first few events of the Chase are very important," Busch said. "To get off to a good start is key. You're not digging out of a hole, so to speak.

"It was a hard-fought battle just to get in. But now, it's almost like we pressed the reset button. Now we have 10 weeks to charge."

Drivers know they get one mulligan in the playoff. You can afford one horrible outing if you race well in the other nine events.

Busch finished 42nd at Atlanta in the seventh of 10 playoff races in 2004 but never fell out of the top spot. Stewart's worst finish in 2005 was 25th at Charlotte, but he posted top-10s in four of the last five events.

It's all about consistency if you want to win the title. Stewart didn't win a race in the Chase when he took the Cup home two years ago.

Being the top seed is certainly an advantage. I'm not sure how much, but I'm hoping it works in the right direction and helps us win another championship.

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson won four of the final six races in 2004, but fell eight points short of catching Busch for the championship. No doubt he filed that information away and learned from it.

Johnson had just one victory in the Chase last year, but he won the championship with an average finish of 10.8 in the playoff events.

"You've got to set a pace that you can maintain and keep," Johnson said. "I think that's something our team is good at doing. You look at it on paper and think 10 races is a short period of time. But when you're living it day to day, that's a long 10 races."

If a driver finishes eighth in all 10 Chase races, he probably is going to win the title. Stewart won it with an average finish of 8.7 in the playoff. Busch's average finish his championship year was 8.9.

Only Carl Edwards fell short under that scenario. His average finish in the 2005 Chase was 8.4, but he finished 35 points back, tied for second with Greg Biffle.

It didn't work out for Edwards because he started the Chase in eighth place, 35 points behind Stewart.

Where you start the Chase can make a difference. Johnson ranked second at the start of the 2006 Chase, only five points behind Gordon.

Busch is the only champ who made up double-figure points from where he began the Chase. He was 30 points back when the 2004 playoff began.

With that in mind, Johnson is sitting pretty, enjoying a bigger points advantage than any driver has had at the start of the Chase.

Nine Chasers are more than 30 points behind Johnson entering this weekend's race. Seven of them are at least 50 points back. The 10th-place Chase driver in the previous playoffs started only 45 points behind.

Winning the last two races and gaining 20 bonus points on the field could make the difference for Johnson come November.

"Being the top seed is certainly an advantage," Johnson said. "I'm not sure how much, but I'm hoping it works in the right direction and helps us win another championship."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.