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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Cookie cutters dominate Chase for the Cup tracks

By Bill Whitehead
Scripps Howard News Service

NASCAR's Chase for Cup finally begins Sunday. Here's a look at important facts and figures for the sprint to the finish.

Race 1

Sylvania 300 at Loudon, N.H., 2 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC.

  • 7,920 feet: The number that will decide the chase.

    Many measurements will help formulate the 2007 Nextel Cup championship -- research, qualifying position, fast pit stops, quick laps and circuits led. But the most telling number may be this: 7,920 feet.

    That's the length of five of the 10 Chase tracks, though they're more commonly referred to as 1.5-mile super speedways -- cookie-cutters, if you will -- rather than by their distance in feet. And success on these five tracks likely will make or break the title contenders.

    Of the five tracks, four of them have clonelike similarities. Tracks in Kansas City, Charlotte, Texas and Atlanta -- four of the first eight Chase races -- all feature a dogleg on the front stretch and good banking. The final 1.5-miler, Homestead-Miami Speedway, is a true oval and features progressive banking, making it distinctive from the others.

    While the quintet of Chase super speedways have slight nuances, one variable remains constant: All will use the near-extinct current model car rather than the boxier Car of Tomorrow, which should give Hendrick Motorsports an advantage.

    Super speedway superstars

    Eight of this year's 12 Chase drivers have won on the five 1.5-mile tracks that are hosts to Chase races. Here's how they stack up:

    Jeff Gordon, 10 wins.
    Tony Stewart, 7.
    Jimmie Johnson, 7.
    Jeff Burton, 4.
    Carl Edwards, 3.
    Matt Kenseth, 2.
    Kurt Busch, 2.
    Kevin Harvick, 1.

    Quiet chasers

    For the fourth year, NASCAR will use the Chase's 10-race playoff format to determine its champion. Here are three drivers who quietly get the job done and could become major players in the title hunt.

    Matt Kenseth
    No. 17 DeWalt Tools Ford
  • Wins this season: 1.
  • The buzz: Simply put, Kenseth's been here before and knows what it takes to win a championship, having accomplished the feat in 2003 in the last year of the old points system. When he and crew chief Robbie Reiser get their Ford hooked up, they're as tough as anyone to beat.

    Jeff Burton
    No. 31 AT&T Chevrolet
  • Wins this season: 1.
  • The buzz: Burton has won a series-high four races at New Hampshire, his most recent coming in 2000 in one of NASCAR's most boring races -- Burton led all 300 laps. A win at Loudon this week to vault him near the points lead would surprise no one.

    Clint Bowyer
    No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet
  • Wins this season wins: 0.
  • The buzz: Bowyer is the anomaly in the 12-driver Chase field: He's the one driver without a Cup win, this year or in his career. Yet his sophomore season has evolved into a strong one, and it hasn't gone unnoticed. "Maybe Clint Bowyer. He just flies under the radar all the time," answered Jeff Gordon when asked who he thought would be a dark horse candidate to win the Chase.

    And the 2007 champion is ...

    Jimmie Johnson
    No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet
  • Wins this season: 6.
  • The buzz: Johnson, 31, has been victorious in his past two starts and always is in the Chase mix. All teams want to play their best when it's all on the line, and his Hendrick team is peaking at the right time.


    Three of the 12 Chasers will be on the move in 2008. Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin will join Toyota, and Kyle Busch will partner with them to drive the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs. How will the three lame-duck drivers fare and will they receive the resources necessary to win a title? And does Dale Earnhardt Jr. draft with future teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson or current teammate Martin Truex Jr.?

    X factor

    Martinsville, the only short track in the Chase, always serves as a wild-card race where anything can happen, but the distinction for the biggest unknown rests with Talladega this year. For the first time at a restrictor-plate track, the COT will be used; it's anyone's guess as to how the tough-turning car will do at the draft-oriented Alabama track.