Still anybody's championship

This late in the Chase, a bad race normally means you're done. But not this year.

Published October 29, 2006

HAMPTON, Ga. - The question has not been who will win the Nextel Cup championship, but who will eliminate himself. Through six races, all 10 contenders have seemingly done so with a wreck here, a bad car there, a faulty part to blame.

The result: a mess. Or a setup to a thrilling finish. You decide.

The entire field heading into today's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway had mathematical viability, if not real hope, of lifting the championship trophy at Homestead. But those drivers will have to do something none of them has shown an inclination for so far: finish the deal.

"We're not really in the lead because of performance," admitted points leader Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. "We're kind of in the lead because other people have had trouble."

Kenseth held a 36-point lead over Kevin Harvick, but the top five - Jimmie Johnson, rookie Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton - were within 48 points. All but 10th-place Kyle Busch were within the 156-point margin a driver can make up during one race. Just mentioning that stat used to smack of desperation, but with the wild swings in points so far, it's valid.

This third edition of the Chase has proved different from the start. Kurt Busch seized control in 2004 by winning the first Chase race and displayed an amazing knack for avoiding misfortune. Tony Stewart did not win in the final 10, but reeled off top 10 after top 10 to capture his second title. He had 109 more points - roughly the amount for running an extra race and finishing 18th - than current leader Kenseth.

All but Kenseth and Harvick have at least two finishes of 21st or worse in this Chase. Harvick has one win, while Kenseth's best finish in the Chase is fourth. Harvick, Burton and Kenseth have held the points lead, with Burton losing a 45-point lead when an engine failure relegated him to a 42nd-place finish at Martinsville last weekend.

"There is no question this has been a sloppy five or six races," Burton said. "No one team has taken this thing and grabbed, (said) 'It is mine.' "

If this Chase is to finally make sense, Johnson and Kasey Kahne might be the ones to provide some order. That they are in that position makes no sense, with Johnson 165 points off the lead and Kahne 273 back just three weeks ago.

Its 1,902 miles to the final checkered flag of the season, but both see that in pleasant 1.5-mile segments. Though their configurations and bankings are unique, Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead are the same length, and Johnson leads the series with seven wins on 1.5-mile tracks since his rookie year in 2002. Kahne has four this year, including Atlanta (spring) and Texas.

"I think we can definitely (win) three out of these four tracks," Kahne said.

For Johnson, who has finished second in the standings twice - by a NASCAR record-low eight points in 2004 - and led the points standings for 22 weeks this year, suddenly being considered a player again is welcomed. After being so far down, he can laugh off little mind games such as the one Kenseth was playing Friday by touting Johnson's chances although he's 41 points behind.

"I think we have been a favorite throughout the season," Johnson said. "We have led a lot of the points battle, the Chase started and everyone is familiar with how things have gone, and it is nice to be back in this thing. It is nice to have the other teams thinking about us and worrying about us."

Johnson sees a chaotic Chase as a way of providing a first championship to a resilient team that has been one of Nextel Cup's elite with 23 wins since 2002.

"I am shocked that it has turned out this way," he said of the Chase. "The slow start that we had, I am happy to see it be this crazy and out of control, so that we can be back in this thing."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.