One Chaser out, Chase still goes on

CONCORD, N.C. -- Ray Seigler of Piedmont, S.C., has parked in the same infield spot at Charlotte Motor Speedway for 24 years. He said he cried more when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 than he did later in the year when terrorists crashed planes into the Twin Towers.

Now he's a devout Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan.

And he's sad.

"I hate it," Seigler said of Earnhardt having to pull out of Saturday night's Chase race at CMS (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next Sunday's race at Kansas because of multiple concussions. "I really hate it. There were a lot of people that won't show up because of it."

That's a bit of an exaggeration. No. 88 flags aren't flying at half-staff with this being the first time since 1979 an Earnhardt won't be in a Sprint Cup race. Earnhardt fans aren't leaving the track in droves, although Seigler insisted six friends from Spartanburg, S.C., aren't coming now.

But this isn't the end of the Sprint Cup world.

"I hate it, too," said Tony Hovis, an Earnhardt fan from Lincolnton, N.C. "But we're staying. First and foremost, we're race fans. We come because we love the racing."

At least somebody realizes there's still a championship up for grabs. At least somebody realizes the sport is bigger than one driver, although with Earnhardt owning about 40 percent of the fan base, we sometimes lose focus on that.

And if Earnhardt is staying away from the track so he doesn't become a distraction, we'll give him the same consideration here.

So let's talk Chase.

Statistically, this still is Jimmie Johnson's championship to lose. The five-time champion, 14 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, has the best average finish over the next six tracks at 8.8. Third-place Denny Hamlin, 23 back, is next best at 11.1.

Keselowski? He has the worst average finish among all Chasers at 18.6.

But statistics don't always tell the story. Keselowski was dreadful at Dover before this year's Chase. He never had a top-10.

Then he won there two weeks ago.

Johnson has more wins (six) than any other active driver at Charlotte, and his average finish of 11.8 ranks No. 1. But, in the past five races at this 1.5-mile track, he has an average finish of 22.6 with only one top-10 and three finishes of 28th or worse.

Kasey Kahne, who is in fourth place only 36 points out, conversely has finished first and fourth in his past two Charlotte races. He has had three wins and nine top-10s in the past 13 races here.

"We had an advantage with the old surface and then they ground it and we were still on top of things, and then the repave was really a great equalizer," Johnson said. "It kind of tipped things towards Kasey Kahne's hand, if anyone's."

Bottom line, we just don't know what's going to happen.

Statistically speaking, by the way, Earnhardt was out of the title hunt 51 points back and in 11th place even before the concussions sidelined him. But in keeping with the promise not to make him a distraction, we'll continue with those competing for the title.

The Roush Fenway Racing cars of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth topped the standings at the end of the regular season, but until Kenseth won last week at Talladega, they had remained relatively quiet.

OK, they'd been horrible.

And statistically, they appear out of it with Biffle in ninth place 49 points back and Kenseth last, 62 back. But Biffle is on the Charlotte pole with a track record lap and Kenseth is the defending champion in this race.

Maybe one or both of them can get back in this. There are four 1.5-mile tracks the rest of the way, and Roush Fenway Racing traditionally is strong at those tracks.

"We're certainly not gonna give up," Biffle said. "We're gonna try to win here Saturday night, try to win next week. Is it too late for us to get back in the hunt? Probably. Mathematically, it doesn't look good, but it's possible."

It's possible only if Keselowski, Johnson and a few others stumble, particularly Keselowski. But Keselowski has stumbled only once in the past 14 races, finishing 30th at Bristol after qualifying second. In the other 13, he hasn't finished outside the top 10 and has won three times.

He has two wins and six straight finishes of seventh or better in that span.

"Take, for instance, last week," Biffle said. "We finished sixth and I look at the scoreboard and Brad is seventh. We gained one point, so 49 more weeks and I'll be right there with him."

Biffle laughed. Everyone within earshot laughed.

But when you look at it that way, Biffle has about the same chance Earnhardt has.

Sorry, didn't mean to mention him.

"Unfortunately, that's the way this sport goes, so all we can do is do the best we can, and whatever happens, happens," Biffle said. "If we get back in it, it's because they gave it back to us."

It has happened before. In 2006, Johnson was 156 points back under the old points system coming to Charlotte. He finished second here to start an amazing run of five straight top-2s en route to his first title.

Jeff Burton, who led the standings heading into and leaving Charlotte, wound up seventh.

"In some ways, you spin it to how you can lead your team and create positive thoughts for yourself," Johnson said of strategy the rest of the way. "And in some respects, you do it for sanity.

"Once you get to the end of the Chase, you've got to be smart. You've got to know who you're racing and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and you kind of know what you need to do, too."

There is no better example than last season. Tony Stewart was fifth in points, 24 back, leaving Charlotte. He won three of the final five races and won the title in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

So maybe even Jeff Gordon has a chance. He's in sixth place, 42 back, but no driver has been hotter the past three races with an average finish of 2.3. Dig deeper and you'll see the four-time champion has six top-3s in the past seven races.

Gordon's pretty good at Charlotte, too, with five career wins. At one point in the 1990s, he owned this track, with three wins in six races.

Maybe he'll recapture some of that magic and have to fulfill his promise to breakdance in Victory Lane with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle characters that sponsor Nickelodeon has on his car this weekend.

See, there are lots of reasons to be at the track with you-know-who out of the race.

There's even the intrigue of watching how Regan Smith handles the pressure of replacing NASCAR's most popular driver, how AJ Allmendinger does in the Phoenix Racing car in his first race back after being suspended for violating NASCAR's substance-abuse policy.

The only thing we know for sure is Earnhardt won't be in the race.

As sad as that is for his fans, there's still a championship to be won.

"I'm not going anywhere," Seigler said. "I'll still be wearing my Junior colors. I'll just have to pull for somebody else."