As this year’s version of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup kicks off, we firmly believe that it will be the best Chase since its inception in 2004.
From a journalist’s standpoint, there are more storylines and things to write about than there has ever been in one of these Chases for the championship.
Let it be for the record, I’ve never been a fan of The Chase. I’m old school and prefer the points system that the late Bob Latford first scribbled down on a napkin and developed into something that was very good for stock-car racing.
But this Chase could bring me over to its side, if it all goes the right way.
Consider these elements of the 2009 Chase:
• Of course, Jimmie Johnson, in that No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has to be considered the favorite, going for his fourth-consecutive championship, a feat no other driver in NASCAR history has accomplished, not even Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt with their seven championships apiece.
Chad Knaus is his ace in the hole. Johnson’s stats in The Chase back him up, too. Johnson is the only one of the 12 drivers in The Chase who has qualified for every Chase. In the 50 Chase races held before Sunday’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson had 26 top-five finishes, 14 victories, 36 top-10 finishes, led 2,204 laps, has a driver rating of 108.8 and an average finish of 8.7. That’s championship material.
• How about Mark Martin, leading the way with four victories during the first 26 races, going into The Chase? Johnson might be the favorite, but Martin has to be the sentimental favorite just because he’s now 50 and he’s never won a championship. I’m not sure if I really want to see it happen or not because I still think it was Jack Roush who should be getting the credit for Martin’s success and not Rick Hendrick, since Martin spent 20 years with Roush before deciding to semi-retire and having Hendrick lure him out of that retirement.
• Then there’s Juan Pablo Montoya. Wouldn’t it be something if the former open-wheel and Formula One standout from Colombia could become the first foreigner to win the championship?
• My favorite is four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who really could salt his career by winning at least three of these final races and tacking on one more title. He could call it quits at the banquet in Las Vegas, Nev., in December with no regrets. It won’t happen, though, as long as he keeps Steve Letarte as his crew chief.
• And how can you not pull for Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman in their first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, coming on the heels of Gene Haas having completed his prison sentence for tax evasion?
• Or the fact eight different teams are represented in this year’s Chase, which is not dominated by the “big four” of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing as it was a year ago.
Now maybe with so many elements involved, just maybe, the best thing will happen in this Chase. Maybe we’ll actually see some old-time racing of passing one another and get down to a little rubbing for the high stakes this Chase has to offer.
Pull it off and you really can roll the dice in Vegas!
“I don’t think you can count anybody out,” said Stewart, who won two championships with Gibbs before jumping over to Haas. “There are 12 great teams that made The Chase and there are reasons they all got here.
“We have seen weird things happen, and every year it’s been different.”
I think it’ll be a while before there are as many good storylines as there are this year.