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Track tight, but title chase open

Coming in to slow, short Martinsville, all 10 drivers are still alive in the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published October 23, 2005

The Chase for the Championship has suddenly become a sprint, thanks to a dozen or more blown tires last weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and all 10 title-eligible drivers have legitimate cause for hope again.

Unless, of course, Tony Stewart races like he has when tires aren't erupting beneath him.

With five races left to decide the Nextel Cup champion, everyone in the top 10 is mathematically able to take first place after today's race at Martinsville Speedway. That includes 10th-place driver and defending series champion Kurt Busch, who is 142 points behind.

A driver can make up as many as 156 points on another in a race.

"It is really anybody's championship at this point," said Jimmie Johnson, who is tied for the points lead with Stewart. "After five races I am shocked just like everyone else how close the championship race is. I think over the next five races it is only going to be more interesting, more aggressive, more stress and pressure and go down to the very end."

The Chase was evolving into a desperate pursuit of Stewart until Oct. 15. Then the combination of a super-fast, super-grippy racing surface and tires that could not withstand the strain turned the Chase upside down like a snow globe.

Stewart, the 2002 series champion, entered with a 75-point lead over Ryan Newman and was leading in a dominant car when a rear tire blew, relegating him to a 25th-place finish. Johnson leaped three spots into a points tie by winning, though Stewart owns the tiebreaker because he has five wins this season to Johnson's four. Greg Biffle is 11 points out, Ryan Newman 17. The top seven are within 100 points.

"It's a great spot to be in," Stewart said of the lead. "I'll be honest, I don't think any of them are wishing us bad luck, but in the back of their mind if it happens, they're not going to be disappointed by it by any means. I doubt anybody shed any tears for us last week at Charlotte when we finished 25th after leading a bunch of laps and showing everybody that we had the best car. That's how competitive the Chase is right now."

But it took a parts failure to make it that way, and if Stewart refocuses, he could drive off again like he did in the first four Chase races, with three top fives, two of them runnerup finishes. He led 247 of 500 laps in the spring race at Martinsville before a broken right front wheel relegated him to 26th.

Martinsville's paper-clip layout, with long straightaways and sharp corners, is certain to inject variables of its own into the Chase. At 0.526 miles the shortest track on the circuit, and the last short track of the season, it will induce contact and test patience and strategy.

"I think the only thing that can happen at Martinsville is just the beating and banging at Martinsville and guys getting crazy and attitudes and egos getting carried away in the cars and pushing other cars around," Newman said.

Johnson does not expect his wins last weekend at Charlotte and last fall at Martinsville to give him an advantage.

"It is tough to carry momentum to a half-mile track from a mile-and-a-half track," he said. "The tracks are really different but luckily for us (Martinsville) is a track where we have won before and we know how to race there and what to do. Hopefully we get everything under control and win the championship."

After finally enjoying a virtually trouble-free Chase race and finishing second at Charlotte, Busch believes he has a shot at making some kind of title defense. He won the fall race in 2002 and is competitive on short tracks.

"We've got some hope," he said. "That's the first Chase race where you could say nothing went wrong for us, so it gives us optimism about the next few. We're 140 points out, and that's still a long ways to go. We just still have to do our job and hope for some good fortune for our own team."

But like everyone else, at least they have a hope again.

[Last modified October 23, 2005, 01:21:14]

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