STEVE LETARTE, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., is standing on the floor of the Hendrick Motorsports race shop the 88 team shares with teammate Jimmie Johnson. He motions with one hand toward the raggedy, wrecked vehicles driven by JJ, who skidded and smoked through the final month of the regular season. Then he points to Junior's cars, downright pristine after three straight finishes in the top 13. "So who would you rather be?" Letarte asks. "The guy with recent bad luck but history on his side, or the guy with no race wins but better numbers in the here and now? I guess we'll find out. We've got 'em both."
Stock car statisticians have long discounted the notion of momentum, but racers are obsessed with it. Who's right? In the case of pre-Chase rolls affecting Cup hopes, numbers back the drivers. Of the past six Cup champs, five finished seventh or better in the final two regular-season races. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are the only Chase contenders to do that this year.
"I hear people talk about a team flipping the switch and I just laugh," says Tony Stewart. The first of his two Chase titles came in 2005, when he rode into the postseason on a wave of 12 consecutive top-10s. "You see it in other sports: A football team rests their starters for a couple of weeks, then they look like crap when they try to get it back in gear for the playoffs."
The lone exception to the rule is Johnson, who stumbled into the 2009 Chase with only one top-10 in the final six races. He went on to win four of the 10 Chase races to run away with the fourth of his five consecutive Cups.
"Yeah, but pretty much everything he does is some sort of mind-blowing history," Carl Edwards, who won the final pre-Chase race at Richmond, says with a laugh. "Us mere humans, we'll take momentum."
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