Preview: Let the Chase Begin

The second Chase for the Cup begins on Sunday at New Hampshire, with ten drivers now separated by 45 points in a ten-race play-off

Preview: Let the Chase Begin

Used for the second time, the Chase sees the top ten drivers after last weekend's race at Richmond have their points reset, and are the only drivers eligible for the title.

Seven of the ten drivers in this season's Chase appeared in the inaugural competition last season, but Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace and Carl Edwards make their first appearance. This year's Chase is also notable for its absentees, with race winners Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr both failing to make the cut.

Autosport-Atlas previews the Chase, profiling the ten drivers who will fight it out for the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup.

1. Tony Stewart
Points: 5050
Poles: 1
Wins: 5
Top five finishes: 12
Top ten finishes: 18

There was a point during the summer where no reasonable NASCAR fan would have looked beyond Tony Stewart for this year's NASCAR title. Having recorded a staggering five wins in seven races over the sunny months, Stewart moved past Jimmie Johnson after 21 events to the top of the standings and never looked back.

But what was most encouraging about the victories was that they came on different types of tracks and proved that Stewart is one of the best all-rounders in the field. From his first win at Daytona's Superspeedway to his second career victory at the short one-mile oval of New Hampshire, Stewart again proved he is a force to be reckoned with. No doubt he would love a road course race to feature in the Chase too after his dominant victories at Infineon and Watkins Glen.

He also increased his popularity by copying Helio Castroneves' IRL celebrations, climbing fences following his wins, and literally taking the chequered flag after winning July's Daytona night race. But Stewart's recent dominance has meant that a 185-point lead over Greg Biffle is now just five, and he has to build it up all over again. Not many will bet against it, however.

2. Greg Biffle
Points: 5045
Poles: 0
Wins: 5
Top five finishes: 10
Top ten finishes: 15

At one point on Fox's coverage of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing this season, the announcer said: "We keep getting letters saying but who is Greg Biffle, and where did he spring from?"

Biffle won the Craftsman Truck series in 2000 and the Busch series in 2002, and will now have his first shot at the Nextel Cup crown. Following on from his first victory in 2003, Biffle hit the headlines in February 2004 by taking pole position for the sport's most important race ­ the Daytona 500.

Biffle has earned his place in the Chase, and along with Stewart, has taken more victories this season than any other driver. He has been in the top five in the points since the second race of the season at California, and even led outright a couple of times.

He had a major say in last year's Chase thanks to winning the final race of the season at Homestead. Although not involved in the Chase then, he pulled off an improbable pass for the lead on the green-white-chequered finish and held off Kurt Busch's title rivals Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. This time at Homestead, Busch hopes the glory could be all his.

3. Rusty Wallace
Points: 5040
Poles: 0
Wins: 0
Top five finishes: 7
Top ten finishes: 14

Rusty Wallace didn't make the chase last season after only ranking 17th at the cut-off point, but comfortably made the top ten in 2005 thanks to 21 top-15 finishes in the 26 races.

He was only 14th after the tenth race of the season at Darlington, but has put in some strong performances to prove there is life in the 49-year-old yet. What could count against him this year in the Chase is his ability to bank on victory lane, having only taken one victory in five years at last year's Advance Autoparts 500 at Martinsville.

However, Wallace would be a popular victor of the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup, especially because he has promised to hang up his gloves and retire in ten races' time. Reigning Champion Kurt Busch will drive the number two Penske from 2007, or if contracts can be negotiated, next season. With Wallace's career spanning nearly 700 Cup races, 55 victories and the 1989 Championship, Busch will have a lot to live up to.

4. Jimmie Johnson
Points: 5035
Poles: 1
Wins: 2
Top five finishes: 9
Top ten finishes: 15

What on earth happened to Jimmie Johnson? He was title favourite this season following a spectacular comeback last year to win four of the final six Chase races, after disastrous finishes at Talladega and Kansas. He finished a slender eight points off eventual winner Kurt Busch.

And early on it looked as if the title favourite status was justified. He took an early win at Las Vegas and won a thrilling Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte with a final corner pass on Bobby Labonte, and with 20 races of the season gone he led the standings. But in the last six events Johnson limped into the Chase, dropping to fourth in the standings, 316 points behind Stewart and looks horrifically off-form.

One ace in Johnson's hand for the Chase, however, is his teammate Jeff Gordon. With the four-time Champion missing out on the Chase himself, he could now become Johnson's biggest asset in his quest for the his first title since joining the Cup tour in 2002. He also goes into this weekend's Chase opener at New Hampshire with the best record at the track of any of the top ten Chase drivers, with an average finish of 8.7, winning both races in 2003.

5. Kurt Busch
Points: 5030
Poles: 0
Wins: 3
Top five finishes: 8
Top ten finishes: 14

The reigning Champion only needed to start last weekend's race at Richmond to secure a spot in the Chase, but Kurt Busch might just have hit form right when he needed too, following his victory.

It has not always been a season that NASCAR would have wanted for its reigning Champion, with sour moments such as Darlington when he was reported to have bad-mouthed NASCAR over the radio and hit an official with his water bottle during a two-lap pitlane penalty.

When it was good for Busch he has been brilliant. His victory at the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono was as dominant as it was brilliant, and his return to victory lane at Phoenix in April following four consecutive event crashes, including a bruising IROC crash, also had the determination of a Champion.

His only Chase victory on his title season was this weekend's corresponding New Hampshire race, but don't be surprised if he wins more this year.

6. Mark Martin
Points: 5025
Poles: 0
Wins: 0
Top five finishes: 6
Top ten finishes: 12

Mark Martin is allegedly in his final season of Nextel Cup racing, but has agreed to keep going if Roush Racing cannot secure the services of Jamie McMurray for next season.

But if this is Martin's last season of Nextel Cup racing, securing the title would be an amazing way to end his career. Martin has famously never clinched the crown, having finished second four times previously, most recently to Tony Stewart in 2002.

His only victory this season came in the Nextel all-star race, but has yet to win a points scoring event since Dover last season. As one of five Roush Racing drivers in the Chase, much of the challenge for the title will come from within, which is likely to help more than hinder.

Like they demonstrated at California, Roush are happy to arrange their drivers to take turns at leading the race to gain those important five bonus points for leading a lap, and such manoeuvres could be crucial in the Chase. He might not have the outright speed to take the title with wins, but if others slip up, you can be sure Martin will be right there.

7. Jeremy Mayfield
Points: 5020
Poles: 0
Wins: 1
Top five finishes: 4
Top ten finishes: 7

Jeremy Mayfield didn't need to win at the final race of the Race to the Chase at Richmond to make the field like he did last year; he was already pretty comfortable in the points standings since his superb race win at Michigan last month.

In his only victory this season, the Evernham Motorsports driver, "robbed a bank" to claim the win after being the fastest driver brave enough not to pit for fuel in the closing stages.

Aside from lucking into the Michigan win, Mayfield has not been a front-runner like the other drivers in the Chase this season, and only has four top five finishes from 26 races. What has put him in the Chase is the 16 top-15 finishes that the NASCAR point system rewards favourably. And he rarely has a bad day, only having finished worse than 20th four times.

One of the most experienced drivers in the field, his best season was in 1998, when he finished seventh. He wasn't a contender in the Chase last season, and is unlikely to be again, unless he can start taking victories on pace alone.

8. Carl Edwards
Points: 5015
Poles: 1
Wins: 1
Top five finishes: 6
Top ten finishes: 11

The first rookie driver to make the NASCAR's new Chase for the Championship, Edwards will be aiming to build on the promising results he scored when he made his debut in Nextel Cup racing at the tail of last season.

Edward's major strength could be his Busch series campaign. While the majority of the Chase runners will be sitting watching the support races on Saturday night, Edwards will be learning about the current track conditions preceding the Nextel Cup main events. He currently lies fourth in the Busch standings.

He has appeared to have the luck that goes with all title winners, notably managing to keep his car out of the wall at California Speedway recently when his tyre punctured, enabling him to score a fourth place finish. The 26 year-old needed to finish 19th or higher at last weekend's Richmond Race to the Chase finale to clinch his spot, but his 21st was still more than enough with other results going his way.

No rookie has ever won NASCAR's top flight, the closest was in 1966, when James Hylton was runner-up to David Pearson. Edwards is an outside bet to become the first.

9. Matt Kenseth
Points: 5015
Poles: 1
Wins: 1
Top five finishes: 6
Top ten finishes: 11

Matt Kenseth goes into the Chase as the on-form driver. After 16 of the 26 races, the 2003 Champion was a staggering 270 points off tenth place and a spot in the Chase, lying only 20th. Many had written him off for this season, having failed to win a race since the third round of 2004 in Las Vegas.

But Kenseth hit the gas at the right time, and his pole and win at Bristol late last month was superbly timed, ending his 57 race-losing streak. He was dominant that night, leading 415 of 500 laps.

The result pushed him up four places to 11th and he then moved into the Chase for the first time all season with two races to go following a seventh at California, where he was in contention for the win until the final pitstop.

He cemented his place after a runner-up to Kurt Busch at Richmond last weekend. As the last of the five Roush Racing drivers to make the Chase, will have four teamates with better season than him to fend off. But on current form Kenseth will be the man to beat this year.

10. Ryan Newman
Points: 5005
Poles: 5
Wins: 0
Top five finishes: 5
Top ten finishes: 10

Ryan Newman has more pole positions than any other driver in the Chase this season, but sadly for the Penske Racing man, NASCAR doesn't award points for the top spot on the grid.

Newman just got into the Chase at Richmond following a 12th placed finish ­ he also ranked tenth when he qualified for last season's Chase. He has recorded ten top-ten finishes and was only once out of the top ten drivers after the first ten races of the season.

He needs to avoid the problems he suffered in last year's chase if he is to have a shot this time around. He started half of last year's Chase races from the front row but still finished seventh after two engine failures and two accidents.

It is remarkable he hasn't won so far this season, considering he took eight wins as recently as 2003, with another two victories last season. But Newman has benefited the most from the new Chase format, having his 661-point deficit to Tony Stewart reduced to just 45 and with it a chance and claiming his first title.

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