Chase Is The Place

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In the run-up to the Chase-which began in January and ended Saturday night-there was palpable tension among those who were in the running for the last three spots. When 10 drivers are battling for anything, it can get exciting in a hurry.

Leave it to Matt Kenseth to stink up the show.

Kenseth, who spent the first five months of the season running around in the back, got red-hot at exactly the right time and breezed into the Chase with room to spare. Ryan Newman did what he had to do to get in, and Carl Edwards spent the last three races alternately scaring himself half to death and racing like a 10-year veteran.

Of those who didn't make it, the story is nearly uniform. Dale Jarrett had performance issues mixed in with an uncharacteristic temper tantrum at Bristol. Elliott Sadler spiraled off the Chase radar at New Hampshire in July when he was sent to the fence by Mark Martin and never could get back on track. In five races, he dropped from a solid fifth to a fading 13th, and that was all she wrote.

Jamie McMurray walked the tightrope between the top 10 and the ozone starting at Phoenix, and he was in the ozone when the checkered flag waved at Richmond. Kevin Harvick looked one week like he was ready to conquer the world, then the next he looked like he was ready to roll into a ball and wait for the season to end. In an up-and-down season that was more down than up, Harvick came up short after Richmond despite a 10th-place finish.

And Jeff Gordon, he of the mighty DuPont Chevrolet and the near-legendary accomplishments, was the most mind-boggling of all the drivers who failed to make the "playoffs."

Closer analysis reveals that Gordon's results this year were atypical in nearly all respects. His average finish was 18.3, he didn't have a top-five finish after Darlington-16 races ago-and his best finish since Darlington was sixth at Bristol.

Not only did it seem that Gordon was a step behind, it also appeared he was a step slow, and that is out of character in the extreme for that team in that organization. He and crew chief Robbie Loomis are likely going separate ways next season-that hasn't been confirmed, but it's looking more and more likely as the season goes on, and Gordon will be out to redeem himself and his team in the season's final 10 races.

This Chase has certainly done one thing for the sport: it's made a lot of people crazy trying to figure out who has what and who will be where. Under the old system, it was more out of sight, out of mind. A driver could sneak up in the points and spring when he had momentum. Under the Chase, you have to be in go mode all the time or you get left behind.

It's way too early to predict who will win the Chase this year. But if I were a betting man-and my wallet tells me I am on occasion-I would have to go for consistency over outright speed.

It's a tradition that you choose your winner before the contest starts, so here it goes. Tony Stewart wins the Chase by 85 points over Matt Kenseth, and Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace battle to the last lap at Homestead for third place. Kurt Busch will run fifth.

Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson will complete the top 10. Here's a surprise: Kyle Busch will finish 11th and win the $1 million prize.

You heard it here first. Of course, if I'm completely under the bus by this time next week, I'll simply say I lost the handle and couldn't adjust my way out of it.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2005

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