This Chase shaping up as toughest yet

FONTANA, Calif. -- Before the 2009 Chase began, Kurt Busch was asked what he thought it would take to win the 10-race playoff.

"I told them I'd feel comfortable if we could get through the Chase with about a 7.0 to 7.5 average [finish]," Busch said.

No offense to Busch, but seventh place every week likely will get you a handshake and a "Thanks for playing" at the end of this season.

Finishing in the top seven every race isn't good enough to win this Chase. At this point, finishing in the top five every race isn't good enough.

Juan Pablo Montoya has finished third, fourth and fourth in the first three Chase races, but he's 51 points behind leader Mark Martin.

Montoya started the Chase 40 points behind, so he would trail Martin by 11 points even if they had started the Chase even.

"In the Chase, it's a different ballgame," Montoya said. "It's not about finishing fifth every week. It's about winning."

Jimmie Johnson's average finish in the 2008 Chase was 5.7. He averaged 5.0 per race while winning his second Cup title in 2007.

Most Chasers were in agreement with Busch at the start of this Chase, thinking it wouldn't take a fifth-place average to win the title.

But there's something they didn't factor into the equation. The Chasers are dominating the top 10. Nine of the top 10 finishers at Kansas on Sunday were Chase drivers. Eight of the top 10 in the first two playoff races were Chasers.

"The competition is as even as I've ever seen it," Jeff Gordon said. "It's going to take strong runs like we had at Kansas [second place] each and every week in the final seven races."

Actually, it's going to take more than that. It's going to take a victory or two, or three, to win this Chase.

"There are six guys ahead of us right now," said Gordon, who is 103 points behind Martin. "It's highly unlikely we're going to make up 100 points and pass all those guys in one race."

Making up points in this Chase is no easy task. Mathematically, a driver can make up as many as 161 points in one race if he wins and leads the most laps and the points leader finishes last.

Mathematically, yes. Realistically, no. Not this Chase.

The contenders are going to finish in the top 10 every race, barring a rare mechanical failure or becoming a victim of the inevitable big wreck at Talladega.

The most points a driver can make up on a top-10 finisher is 61, not good news for the six Chasers already more than 100 points down.

Don't think these guys haven't already considered all these numbers. Montoya said his goal right now is to get through the next three races with Johnson still in sight.

Johnson is 18 points behind Martin, but Montoya knows Johnson could make his move to the top in the next three races.

Johnson has won two of the past four races at Auto Club Speedway. He has five victories at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where the Cup teams compete the next weekend. And Johnson has won five of the past six races at Martinsville, where the teams race in two weeks.

"These are the three tracks where you just try not to lose many points to Jimmie," Montoya said. "If you can get through those three without being out of reach of Jimmie, you'll be fine."

The problem is a driver could finish 10th in all three races and find himself out of contention for the championship.

Martin and Johnson traded the top two finishing spots in the first two Chase races before falling back a little at Kansas. Martin was seventh, Johnson ninth.

"Those guys aren't going to finish 1-2 every single week," said Denny Hamlin, who is 99 back in sixth place. "There are going to be opportunities for us to gain on them. We have to make sure we capitalize when the door opens.

That door hasn't opened yet. Even Hamlin admits he isn't likely to make a big gain from an unlucky break for most of the guys ahead of him.

"There's nothing but Chase guys up front, pretty much," Hamlin said. "All we can do is try to keep chipping away."

And forget about that old Chase theory that everyone gets a mulligan. Not this time. One whiff with a 43rd-place finish and you're done.

"It's really shaping up to be so close that you can't afford to have a disastrous day," Busch said. "It could very well be that you can't afford to have anything worse than a 25th-place finish."

Twenty-fifth? At this rate, anything worse than 15th and it's time to say goodnight.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.