Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Talladega doesn't dampen Chasers' spirits
By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com
This time, it wasn't reckless driving from somebody with nothing to lose. It was reckless driving from somebody with everything to lose -- the points lead, control of the Chase, and respect from fellow racers.
This week, the big shakeup in the standings came courtesy of Jimmie Johnson -- and yet, no big fuss was made from within the garage. Sure, Elliott Sadler -- a non-Chase contender -- sounded off. And, yes, Mark Martin was visibly upset afterward. But the anger and frustration subsided relatively quickly, or at least was internalized.
"I thought everybody did a pretty good job," said Chase contender Carl Edwards. "I didn't think it was too out of hand.
After Talladega there were a couple of torn-up cars and some bad days for some of the Roush guys, but I think overall the mood is awesome. Everyone is still close enough that any of us could win."
Although that's true, it's somewhat surprising that Martin, who has come achingly close to winning his first title before and had it ripped out from underneath him every time, wasn't a little more dejected after Sunday's jaunt. Instead, he was -- of all things -- understanding.
"Last week was a tough one," he said. "You go into those things knowing that that kind of thing can happen at Talladega and you just hope that you don't get in it. We haven't done a very good job of not getting in it and we were once again in the wrong place at the wrong time on Sunday. We took a big hit in the points, but we'll just have to keep fighting our way back. This team doesn't give up and we'll just keep fighting back and see what happens."
But with the roullete wheel of Talladega spun, the points standings are slowly starting to look more like pre-Chase standings. The top two remain close, separated only by four points. From there, though, third place is 76 points out. Sixth place is 100 points out and 10th is 180 points out. All within striking distance over a seven-race title run, but all dependent upon Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman meeting disaster at some point before season's end.
Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. With top-10 finishes, Stewart and Newman separated themselves at the top of the points standings, Kenseth pulled nearer to contention and Edwards continued his season of surprise.
Without question, Stewart and Newman are the biggest of the big winners -- the duo taking control of the points race and putting themselves in the drivers seat. Without at least one screw-up from each of these two, nobody else's prognosis looks good.
But with just four points separating the two, the battle among them promises to be a thrilling one.
"The points battle right now is definitely exciting for us, but we're not going to relax," Newman said. "There are seven races left in this thing and anything could happen. We saw that at Talladega last weekend. The Alltel team is just going to keep doing what we've been doing. We're not feeling any pressure and we're not putting any pressure on ourselves. We said in the beginning of the 'Chase', 'Let's have some fun.' That's what we've been doing and it's working so far."
Feeling the heat
Kurt Busch and Mark Martin. Every Chase contender likes to think he's got a mulligan in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, but Busch -- and now Martin -- might very well learn that this isn't the case in the 2005 campaign.
"Mulligans are in golf; this is racing," points leader Stewart said. "We don't have mulligans here. You have what you have. A mulligan is when you don't have to count what you did. If Dover was a mulligan, then we don't have to count that week's points, right? So there are no such things as mulligans in auto racing.
"If everybody has a bad week, then everybody can afford to have a mulligan, I guess. But if half the field has a bad week and the other five guys stay in the top-five every race, you can't afford it."
With poor outings in at least one of the first three Chase races, Martin has fallen 138 points out of first and Busch has fallen to 180 points out. The only way to make a move to the top is for everybody to have a bad day when one of these guys doesn't.
But that's easier said than done, as Busch learned last Sunday. He finished 10th at Talladega Superspeedway -- on a day when four Chase racers were involved in wrecks -- and yet he fell even further out of first because the top two guys in the standings continue a torrid pace. Those two -- Stewart and Newman -- have no more restrictor-plate tracks and only one more short track with which to deal.
Still on course
Jimmie Johnson, Rusty Wallace, and Greg Biffle. Despite bringing out the day's first caution flag, Johnson had a large enough cushion in the points to weather his points hit. He fell only three spots to fourth, 82 points back. Wallace is still on course, too, falling only one spot to third and sitting just 76 points out. Both are surmountable defecits.
Biffle, while improving one spot in the standings, fell 75 points out of first. Since finishing second or third isn't anybody's goal, it's the points deficit that matters most -- but Biffle, like Johnson and Wallace, is still on track. He's 98 points out and has six races to pile up top-fives while waiting for Stewart and Newman to slip.
Hardly a peep
Jeremy Mayfield hasn't gone out in a blaze of sub-20s and sub-30s as he did in last season's points chase, but he hasn't exactly amassed a host of top-10s, either. With a best finish so far of seventh, and a worst of 16th, Mayfield absolutely embodies the notion of hardly a peep. While he hasn't made a dash to the top of the standings, he hasn't sunk to the bottom, either.
There he sits in eighth place, just waiting for the rest of the crowd to hit a snag and for him to find his stride. That's his hope for overcoming the 112-point, seven-driver defecit he's created.
"We set a game plan to win races, and if we can't win every race we want to take as many points and positions as possible," Mayfield said. "We feel our two bad days are over with a 16th at New Hampshire and a 14th at Talladega. We got out of those with clean finishes so we need to move on. We just need to stay quiet and run our race."
Johnson's the easy answer, but he wasn't alone. Ryan Newman also brought out a caution on Sunday, and collected two Chase drivers in his wake. In total, Johnson and Newman affected the hunts of four drivers.
"I feel bad," Johnson said. "I don't know what else I can say. I started a wreck and took out a lot of good cars. And I've apologized to everyone and called everyone. That was the last thing I intended to do and I feel horrible for it. So I'm taking the responsibility."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.