And then there were 10.
The Nextel Cup Series heads to New England this weekend, bringing with it a new era: The playoff era. Ten drivers survived NASCAR's regular season and it's now time to begin the inaugural "Chase for the Nextel Cup."
Which means, it's time to handicap the top-10 field, which begin their battle Sunday in the Sylvania 300 at New Hamphsire International Speedway. So here goes:
The drive for five is very much alive. Though Jeff Gordon's actual points lead has been reduced to a mere five by virtue of the 'Chase' format, the four-time Cup Series champ tops the list of contenders.
Gordon's season has been reminiscent of his previous championship seasons. He leads the series with five wins including the Brickyard 400, which in years past has proved to be a harbinger. Twice (1998 & 2001) Gordon has gone on to claim the title after kissing the bricks that same year.
Gordon's lead may be small but the truth is he has a much bigger advantage than he's willing to admit. On the strength of his first 23 races Gordon was able to clinch a spot in the 'Chase for the Nextel Cup' three races before the regular season concluded. That gave the team two intangible advantages. First, the freedom to experiment and second, the ability to save many of their testing dates for the final 10 weeks. Do not discount the strategic value of these two elements.
Massaro's odds: 2 -1.
If Jimmie Johnson hadn't gotten tangled up with Casey Mears on Saturday night, he'd probably be the one carrying the points lead into the Chase. Despite having one less win than Gordon an argument can be made that his season has been better. At one point he held the season's largest point lead, 232 markers ahead of Gordon.
There were signs of vulnerability though. Johnson had three engine problems in the last six races. Just speculation, but more than likely you can chalk that up to experimentation. Like Gordon he has also saved his tests and will be a strong contender.
Massaro's odds: 4-1.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has four wins this season and would seem to be a threat during this 10-race playoff run. That is if, and it's a big if, they can find consistency and team unity. When they've been good they've been virtually unbeatable. But when they've struggled they've compounded their problems with internal strife. After a respectable third-place Pepsi 400 finish in Daytona, Junior blasted his over-the-wall crew. In the following four weeks their best finish was 22nd.
It would have been easy for Junior to use his burns as an excuse for that slump, but he doesn't. Even after winning Bristol three weeks ago he said the team had more work to do. Listening to their radio communication in California the following week it appeared they hadn't done it. Junior and car chief Tony Eury Jr. had several heated exchanges. Grade this behavior on a curve though, these guys are like brothers -- after all, there aren't many driver-car chief combinations that can say they went trick-or-treating together when they were 5. They're entitled to a little bickering but they'll have to come together immediately if they're to contend.
Massaro's odds: 5 -1.
Tony Stewart could be dangerous during this playoff run but still there are question marks. It appeared the Home Depot team was peaking in July and August. During a seven-week stretch between Daytona and Michigan they collected six top-10 finishes, including their only two wins. Their enthusiasm has been tempered in the past three weeks though. Stewart's best finish during that period has been 18th. This could also be a product of experimentation or it could be a red flag.
Two big positives on Stewart's side are the schedule and his team's experience. Stewart has victories at seven of the 10 "Chase for the Nextel Cup" tracks. The only driver who has won more at those tracks is Gordon, who's won at eight of the 10. Like Gordon, Stewart is a former champion and his team's experience under this type of pressure is a benefit.
Massaro's odds: 3 -1.
Matt Kenseth could do exactly what he did last year: quietly and convincingly steal this championship. Many people say the new championship format was designed because of the way Kenseth nonchalantly won the title last year. Ironically, his style may be the best for this format, too. To prevail over the next 10 races a driver must walk a tight rope between aggression and conservatism. When it comes to this approach Kenseth may be the most balanced driver in the field. He avoids DNFs and collects top-10s.
Massaro's odds: 4 -1.
Elliott Sadler has been the season's biggest surprise; now it's time for him to prove that it hasn't been a fluke. Sadler has collected two wins but at times looked shaky. He must find a way to consistently keep the M&Ms Ford with the leaders.
Perhaps the team's biggest asset is crew chief Todd Parrott, who won a championship with Dale Jarrett in 1999. He knows how to win under pressure but the question is, can he teach his troops?
Massaro's odds: 6 -1.
To win this year's championship Kurt Busch must end the season the way he did in 2002, when he won three of the last five races. A lot has happened to Busch since that year, both good and bad, but it's undeniable he's a more mature driver. That's important because one false move may put a driver in an unrecoverable position.
If it weren't for fuel mileage issues Busch may easily be heading into the 'Chase' fresh off a win. Instead he finished 15th at Richmond, his first finish outside the top 11 since Pocono on Aug. 1. That's the type of consistency that could make him a factor.
Massaro's odds: 5 -1.
Mark Martin is clearly the sentimental favorite. The 18-year (full seasons only) veteran has been the championship runner-up four times but has never hoisted the cup. The last six weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for the 45-year-old. While literally dodging hurricanes from his Daytona Beach, Fla., home, Martin has been directly in the eye of the race for the chase storm. It appeared, however, that every time Martin moved within striking distance of the top 10, lady luck abandoned him.
Coincidentally, based upon an informal garage poll, Martin is among the field's most feared drivers. That's because he's caught fire and since this new system emphasizes peaking at the season's end he has to be considered a favorite. Martin has finished among the top-five in four of the last five races. With his fifth-place finish in Richmond, Martin cracked the top 10 for the first time this season. Perfect timing.
Also, like Stewart, he's won at seven of the 10 remaining tracks.
Massaro's odds: 4 -1.
Although it wasn't a win-or-go-home situation, that's how Jeremy Mayfield treated last weekend. With his back against the wall, sitting 14th in the standings heading into Richmond, Mayfield turned in his best performance in more than four years. His Richmond victory was his first win since June 2000. The win moved him to ninth in the standings.
The good news is Mayfield is just 40 points back. He also has a huge asset in Ray Evernham, perhaps the sport's brightest innovator. The bad news however, is that 40 points may be as close as he comes. Mayfield hasn't strung together more than three consecutive top 10s at any point this season.
Massaro's odds: 7 -1.
Ryan Newman is 10th in points but he's a powerful wild card. Evidenced by his 2003 season where he led the series with eight wins, Newman's Penske team can be explosive. Newman has won only once this season, leading many to believe he's ready to break out. The 10-race Chase would be the ideal time, obviously.
Newman has previous wins at three of the first four tracks (New Hampshire, Dover & Kansas City) included in the Chase. This may provide foundation for a solid run at the Cup. Newman hasn't been shy about sharing his ill feelings toward this new system, at times calling it "stupid." Still, don't think for a minute there wouldn't be an immense satisfaction if he were to give the Alltel team the first Nextel Cup.
Massaro's odds: 5 -1.
That's the field. Let the 'Chase' begin.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.