AP Photo/Ben Margot
Start your engines
Kyle Busch and Mark Martin have been brilliant at times this season. If the Chase started today, the young gun and the old man would be tied atop the reset points standings thanks to their three wins apiece.
Of course, that's fantasy. The reality is that when the Chase does start, 10 races from now, one or both drivers may not be among the 12 gunning for the Sprint Cup, by virtue of how they've performed on their non-winning weekends.
It's an oddity of the current standings that three of the four winningest drivers this season still need to scrape out good points days for the next couple of months to ensure playoff spots. Busch and Martin, even with the three wins each, are only ninth and 11th in points. Busch has finished 22nd or worse in four of six races since winning at Richmond, while Martin has had five runs of 31st or worse, including a 35th on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday.
Sandwiched between them in 10th is Matt Kenseth, the Roush Fenway veteran who opened the year with back-to-back wins at Daytona and California. He has four top-10s in the past 14 races after the blazing start.
The only multiple winner all but locked into the Chase is three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who has run consistently well all year, including wins at Martinsville, Va., and Dover, Del.
Winning -- news flash -- is a good thing. But it's not out of the realm of possibility that the winningest driver through 26 races may not qualify for the Chase.
"Last year, the same things would fall our way and we had luck going our way really well," said Busch, who won eight of the first 26 races but also had nine other top-10s for Joe Gibbs Racing. "This year has been a struggle to get finishes knocked out every week and go on a string of top-10s. Our cars aren't as good as they were last year. I feel like I've been struggling in some areas."
As the "Race for the Chase" begins (don't be fooled by NASCAR's cute label for the next 10 races; the points are still the same), you could see more points racing from the likes of Busch and more win-or-bust driving from the likes of Chase-comfortable drivers such as Jeff Gordon. The reset-points seeding still matters.
"Our goal is to make it into the Chase, but you can't help but keep an eye on the bonus points," said Gordon, second in the standings but with only one win, in April at Texas. "Right now, I know we're 20 points behind those with three wins, so I'd like to cut -- or possibly eliminate -- that gap before the Chase begins."
First chance to do that is Sunday at Loudon, N.H., a track where Gordon has won three times and seven of the other 11 drivers in the top 12 -- Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch -- have also won.
"We've got to work as hard as we can and we've got to be careful. We've got to be cautious and get those points, whether it's a fifth, seventh or a third," Biffle said of Roush Fenway, which needs to protect an eighth-place position first, then worry about a first victory. "We try and win every one of them, but the fact of the matter is we can't take chances. We've got to get good finishes and take care of our equipment."
That can be challenging in the middle of the pack at Loudon, a flat, 1-mile oval that puts a premium on braking and handling for 301 laps. It's an interesting stop in the middle of a summer schedule that's heavy on longer ovals and includes two road courses. The Cup series won't return to another smaller track until late August and the Bristol, Tenn., night race.
"New Hampshire is a fun track for me, as a driver, even though it was a tough year there last year," said Kyle Busch, 25th and 34th in the two New Hampshire stops.
"In order to do well there, you need a car that works on all the different kinds of asphalt the track seems to be putting down. You need a car that has a lot of side bite in the rear and front grip to turn easier. It seems like I've always been loose into the corner and tight in the center, which is hard to fix, sometimes. I think the team that can fix that the best will have the best car."
Kasey Kahne: The rumor mill isn't going to stop spinning around Richard Petty Motorsports any time soon, from the future of its relationship with Dodge to how many drivers, and which drivers, might return in 2010. There have already been layoffs within the team, and no one knows if that's the end of the hardship.
On the flip side, maybe the on-track hardship is over for Kasey Kahne. After two top-10s in the first 11 races, he has notched three in the past five, capped with an improbable win on the road course at Sonoma. Over that time he moved from 16th to 13th in the standings, just three points away from putting the Bud Dodge in the top 12.
"Early in the year, to me, it seems like we started behind a little bit," Kahne said. "They gave these guys that work at Richard Petty Motorsports a chance to go out and build some better race cars, some better engines and work on the setups and work on a lot of things, and it's paid off in the last month and a half."
If it pays off with a Chase berth, it may turn around the future of RPM.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Gotta See This
Denny Hamlin: The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota was in this spot last week, and there's no reason to move him. His fifth-place run at Sonoma, with 33 laps led, moved him up three spots in points to seventh. No one else in the top 20 had a bigger jump Sunday.
"It's solid days like this where you can't think about wins in the points position that we're in right now," Hamlin said. "We're trying to gain points over that 13th place -- that's the most important thing for us is to make that fourth consecutive Chase. ... Once we do that then maybe we can think about taking chances, but right now it's all about getting points."
Look for Loudon to be another points grab, as his 7.2 average finish at the 1-mile oval is topped only by a 6.7 average at Watkins Glen -- another place to look forward to.
Off the Pace
Jeff Burton: For as much as Richard Childress Racing has struggled this season, at least it could say the No. 31 Chevy was safely in the Chase picture.
Not anymore. Burton's forgettable day at Sonoma -- started 36th, finished 34th -- dropped him three spots in points to 15th. Not since March had he been outside the top 12.
He's capable of flipping that around immediately at Loudon, being a four-time winner there, but that might appear to be ancient history given the shaky present at RCR. Forget getting three cars into the playoff like last year; it'll be a feat if RCR gets one. And Burton's not the front-runner; it's 16th-place-and-climbing Clint Bowyer after his run of four consecutive top-12s, including eighth at Sonoma.
Inside the Numbers
12: Drivers running at finish in all 16 races this year
7: Drivers running at finish through first 16 races last year
36: Lead-lap finishers at Sonoma, most in a Cup road race
7: Top-10 finishes for Juan Pablo Montoya this year
9: Top-10 finishes for Montoya in 73 previous Cup starts
43: Percentage of winners who led the most laps at Loudon (lowest percentage among 1-mile tracks)