By Micah Roberts
The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship begins this week on the 1.058-mile track of New Hampshire. Only 60 points separates the top from the bottom as the 12 drivers start a 10 race campaign with the champion being crowned November 21 at Homestead-Miami.
Starting the Chase off with a win is nice but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the road is paved for an eventual title. Kurt Busch accomplished that feat in 2004 when he won the championship in the first ever Chase format, but in the five ensuing years after, the winner of the first Chase race hasn’t gone on to win the title.
Part of the reason is that four-time defending Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won at New Hampshire during the Chase, which is hard to believe considering he has won a record 18 Chase races. Second most on the list of Chase wins is Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle with a mere six wins each. Although Johnson has had four DNF’s this season, he looks to have somewhat of an edge coming in this week. He won for the third time at New Hampshire in the June race and is using the same chassis this week.
What’s surprising about Johnson bringing one of the better cars from his stable is that only he, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart brought race used cars. Each of the nine other contestants in the Chase brought brand new chassis‘. Johnson and Stewart’s teams have come in with the approach of starting the Chase with their best and it showed in practice. Johnson had the second best average speeds in both of Saturday’s final practices while Stewart -- using his runner-up chassis from the June race -- had the fastest single lap times in the first two practices.
Although New Hampshire, Richmond and Phoenix are all different in configuration, their relatively flat banking make them all somewhat similar for race set-ups. Even though Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin won at Richmond this year with great cars, they opted to go with new rides. The same goes for Jeff Gordon who finished within the top-four in three of the four races run on the similar tracks this year.
Granted, the crew chiefs of these teams can recreate a set-up onto any car with all their precision notes from the past races. They are geniuses and know more than anyone how their car needs to be, but past history shows over the years that successful cars on similar tracks do better than first time starters. With all the marbles on the line and this being the first of a 10 furlong race, why not go with the best.
One driver who blew away almost everyone in Saturday’s practice using a new car was Clint Bowyer. During the final two practice session, Bowyer had the fastest average lap times and has vaulted himself to being one of the favorites Sunday. The difference between Bowyer and the likes of Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Gordon using new chassis’ this week is that Bowyer’s four previous races at the similar tracks weren’t as outstanding as the others. Bowyer did have consistent runs on each, but the team obviously felt on this large platform of the Chase that there was room for improvement and it looks like the right call.
When Bowyer won this race to start the Chase in 2007, not only was it his first career win, but it also catapulted him to very strong final finishing position of third in points. Look for a great race out of Bowyer this week and beyond.
In the last 11 races at New Hampshire there have been 11 different winners. A driver who could keep that unique stat going this week is Jeff Gordon who last won there in 1998. In fact, all three of his career wins have come from 1998 and earlier. Despite the drought in wins, Gordon has still managed to finish within the top-four in five of the last eight races run there, of which includes three runner-up finishes.
Gordon’s not exactly coming into the Chase on fire, but he has managed to keep himself in races and be competitive throughout the year even when his car hasn’t been good. He finished the first 26 races of the season second in points because of that consistency and should fare well in the chase format. Winning races is a nice amenity during the Chase, but staying on the track is essential. During the final practice session Gordon was second fastest overall, a nice pick up in speed from the first two practices.
If looking for another driver who can keep the impressive streak of different winners going, you can take a look at two drivers who are out of the Chase, teammates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. Each had terrific final practices with McMurray standing out just a notch above Montoya. McMurray led the final practice with the fastest single lap and had the best 10 consecutive lap average in Saturday’s first session. Each of them are using their same chassis’ that raced in June.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also made a good practice showing Saturday with strong average times. He's using the same chassis that finished eighth in June. While he may not be a driver good enough to win with this week, he should have a quality finish giving him good value in matchup wagers and as a fantasy selection.
I’ve made my final wagers to win the Chase based on what I already had bet earlier this year. In December I bet Denny Hamlin at 10 to 1 and then took the approach of waiting for any kind of value along the way. After finally buying into Kevin Harvick being for real, I took him at 10 to 1 in late June. This week I took a chance on two drivers who don’t have any wins on the year, but who I see value in just because of their consistency. Carl Edwards has been a machine since the Firecracker at Daytona and Jeff Gordon has been almost as good. Each had odds of 12 to 1 that I found attractive.
Johnson, Hamlin, and Kyle Busch will all be tough, but I feel confident in Harvick, Gordon and Edwards a bit more just because they haven’t had lengthy lulls in their season like the favorites have. It doesn’t take wins to win the Chase as Tony Stewart proved in 2005 when he won it all with an average finish of 8.7 and no wins. I could see Harvick, Gordon or Edwards doing the same this year. It hasn't been a good bet going against Johnson in the Chase, but it's no fun rooting -- or betting -- for the favorite.
Here’s a look at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book’s oods to win the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship:
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-2
JEFF GORDON 12
KYLE BUSCH 5
TONY STEWART 10
DENNY HAMLIN 9-2
CARL EDWARDS 12
KURT BUSCH 15
GREG BIFFLE 20
MATT KENSETH 40
CLINT BOWYER 18
KEVIN HARVICK 6
JEFF BURTON 18