Sunday, October 7, 2007
Updated: October 8, 3:28 AM ET
Hendrick drivers Gordon, Johnson running away with Chase
By David Newton
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Kurt Busch turned from the crowd of reporters waiting outside his Nextel Cup hauler late Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, looked into the mirrored door and ran his fingers through his sweat-filled hair.
He wanted to look good for the cameras.
He already felt good inside after a seventh-place finish that moved him from ninth to seventh in the championship Chase.
Then reality set in.
Despite having a chance to win on the last lap, despite a solid top-10 finish after being forced to start at the back of the field because his car failed the height test in post-qualifying inspection, the overall picture didn't look any better.
Busch went from 177 points behind first place to 215, a net loss of 38 points.
That's because the two drivers he's chasing, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, finished first and second after sandbagging around the back of the field most of the afternoon.
"We need to finish in front of them a couple of times instead of behind them," Busch said. "They've been the guys to beat all year. It's our job to beat them in the Chase."
Nobody has so far.
It doesn't appear as though anybody will.
Clint Bowyer started the day in third place, 14 points behind Johnson. His 11th-place finish left him 63 behind Gordon, who didn't lead a lap until the final one.
Tony Stewart started the day in fourth place, 117 points behind Johnson. He left -- in a hurry -- with an eighth-place finish that put him 154 out of the lead.
Kevin Harvick started the day in fifth place, 126 behind Johnson. He left 202 behind after a 20th-place finish.
"We might be moving up, but I think we've fallen farther back," said Todd Berrier, Harvick's crew chief. "You've got to have luck, and you've got to have things to make your own luck. They did what they had to do again, like they normally do.
"It's going to take a really big push by some of us other guys to get up there and do the deal."
It might take a miracle.
Johnson and Gordon entered the Chase first and second for a reason. Johnson was first because he had a series-high six wins and 15 top-5s, five more than anybody but Gordon.
Gordon entered with four wins, a series-high 17 top-5s and a series-high 23 top-10s.
Nobody has been more consistent all season. Unless these two begin having engine problems or wrecking, the Chase will come down to one of them in six weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I don't think we're a runaway by any stretch of the imagination," said defending champion Johnson, who went from a six-point lead over Gordon to a nine-point deficit. "Jeff and I look like we've separated ourselves a little bit, but that can be one race."
Again, not without some bad luck.
Gordon has three top-10s and an 11th in four Chase races. Johnson has three top-10s and a 14th.
They're heading to tracks where they have been as good as or better than anybody chasing them, starting with Lowe's Motor Speedway, where Johnson has five wins and Gordon four.
"Obviously, those guys are going to be the guys to beat right there," said Gil Martin, Bowyer's crew chief. "But coming out of here with an 11th-place finish, the way our track record has been in the past, I would have taken 11th and never even cranked it up today.
"That's a good deal for us."
It wasn't a good deal for Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Burton blew an engine and finished last, dropping to last in the Chase, 336 out of first. Kenseth was caught up in an 11-car crash that left him 26th in the race and 11th in the Chase, 315 out.
Kyle Busch also was caught up in that wreck, finishing 36th and falling 260 points behind. Truex blew an engine and finished 42nd, falling to 300 back.
"This team wants me to be optimistic, but I am sorry, it is just the realism of what has happened that sets in and you realize you are so far back it's going to take a lot to get back in this deal," Kyle Busch said.
"Especially when you have great racers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart who are up front in the points and haven't had much bad luck in this Chase deal."
Unless that changes, the championship title will return to HMS for the second straight year.
"Let's wait," said Gordon, who has four Cup titles but none since the Chase format began in 2004. "It's too early to really say that. We've just got to keep going race to race."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I don't think we're a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Jeff and I look like we've separated ourselves a little bit, but that can be one race.
-- Jimmie Johnson