Chase Heats Up

One driver's famine was another five drivers' feast this past Sunday. As a result, the table is set for a superb three-race closing act in the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, which heads to Phoenix International Raceway this week for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500.

Chase points leader Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford) had his momentum muted via a blown engine and subsequent 42nd-place finish this past Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"It's just tough to go 10 races perfect," said Busch.

Because of that, we now have this: Five drivers within 150 points of Busch, a quintet that includes two former series champions.

  • Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), winner of three consecutive races, is second in the Chase standings after seven races, 59 points behind Busch;

  • Johnson's car owner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, four-time champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is third, 72 back;

  • Four-time series runner-up Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), closing out his next-to-last season of fulltime competition, is fourth, only 81 behind;

  • Defending Phoenix race champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) is fifth, 98 behind;

  • And Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), the 2002 series champion, is sixth, 145 points out of first place.

    The reemergence of Johnson is the story of the season thus far, a combination of triumph and tragedy. After being the dominant driver in the 26 weeks leading up to the Chase, Johnson stumbled once the 10-race shootout began and fell dramatically in the standings. Now he's on a roll again, which is both amazing and admirable, considering the anguish caused by the Oct. 24 crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane that killed 10 people, including the brother and son of the organization's leader, Rick Hendrick.

    "There has been so much going on in the last couple of weeks that it's kind of helping us as a team not to look at what we've done and to continue to look forward," Johnson said.

    "I think that's the best way our team works. If we're not paying attention to what took place or where we're at, things always work out better for us. So, it's been a great run of races. We'll just keep plugging away and I think these last three races [we've won] have shown us it takes a full day's work."

    Gordon is in a quandary of sorts. He takes pride in seeing Johnson challenge for the championship, but at the same time is focused on winning a fifth championship and edging closer to the all-time record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

    "As a teammate, it's great to see Jimmie and the No. 48 team doing so well right now," Gordon said. "As a competitor, we need to stop his momentum and gain some of our own. The best way to do that is to win this weekend."

    Gordon, surprisingly, has never won at Phoenix. But that's not to suggest he can't do so. After all, in his last 10 PIR events, Gordon has nine top-10 finishes. Johnson, meanwhile has only two PIR starts, but finished second last year to Earnhardt.

    "The Chase has really tightened up, and I expect it to go down to the final race," Gordon said. "We haven't run particularly well recently, yet we're only 72 points out of the lead. The opportunity is still there. We just need to take advantage of it."
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