NASCAR races into the 2006 chase
By Adam Fenwick
Around the Campus Editor
Electronic News Editor
With 10 races left in the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season, it’s time to start the Chase for the Championship but there are several familiar faces missing.
Last year’s top three in the standings (Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) are all on the outside looking in as the chase starts Sept. 17 at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Replacing them are some surprising names: rookie Denny Hamlin, second-year driver Kyle Busch and veteran-driver Jeff Burton.
Entering the 2006 NASCAR season many felt that Stewart, Biffle and Edwards would be the men to beat for the season championship.
However, this year hasn’t played out well for any of them as all three have had their fair share of bad luck and misfortune.
Tony Stewart has had five finishes of 32 or worse this season and even with two wins, 10 top 5’s and 14 top 10’s that wasn’t enough to get him in the chase.
The eight-race stretch from the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte to the Lenox Industrial Tools 400 in Dover (where he had six finishes of 25 or worse) dropped Stewart from second in the NASCAR Nextel Cup points to 11th, and he was never able to fully regain his momentum.
Greg Biffle’s year hasn’t even been close to what most expected it to be.
Biffle, who finished second in the standings to Stewart in 2005, has had eight finishes of 31 or worse this season and only one win, at Darlington in May.
Biffle just never seemed to catch a break all season and was unable to put up the numbers he needed to get into the chase.
Carl Edwards, much like Biffle, just hasn’t had a very productive season in 2006.
Edwards, who is coming off an outstanding 2005 campaign where he won four races and finished third in the standings behind Stewart and Biffle, has had seven finishes of 35 or worse this year, and he hasn’t been able to win a race, yet.
To say the 2006 season has been a disappointment for Stewart, Biffle and Edwards would be an understatement.
On the other hand, the 2006 season has been an outstanding success story for some young and old drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit.
Denny Hamlin, the rookie sensation, became the first rookie to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup with 2 wins, 4 top 5’s and 13 top 10’s.
With Stewart out of the chase, Hamlin is the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver with a shot to win the championship in 2006. Hamlin starts the chase in fifth position, only 20 points outside of first.
Kyle Busch also silenced many of his doubters in 2006 by racing his way into the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Busch, who finished 20th in the standings in 2005, has often been criticized for being too aggressive on the track as well as being very inconsistent.
That all changed this year; 1 win, 9 top 5’s and 15 top 10’s have catapulted Busch to 4th in the Nextel Cup standings and a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
It’s not all about the youngsters, however, just ask Jeff Burton.
Burton, who hasn’t won a race since 2001 when he was still driving for Roush Racing, has had nothing short of an outstanding season so far.
Four poles, 4 top 5’s and 15 top 10’s have brought a man many would never have considered a contender this time last year into the chase for the Nextel Cup. He starts the chase in 8th only 35 points out of first.
In order for Hamlin, Busch or Burton to have a chance at the title, they first have to catch the two hottest men in NASCAR: Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth starts the chase as the point’s leader, a place he is very familiar with. Kenseth, the 2001 Nextel Cup Champion, hasn’t even had as much as a hiccup this year.
He has 4 wins, a series leading 13 top 5’s, 16 top 10’s and only one finish outside the top 30 (a 38 place finish at Richmond in the spring).
He catapulted past Jimmie Johnson and into the points lead at California Sept. 3 after finishing in the top 10 in four of the previous five races (including two wins).
Johnson, on the other hand, starts the chase on a bit of a slide. Johnson, has been nothing short of dominant by winning the Daytona 500 and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard this year.
Only one other man has done both in one season and he went on to win the Nextel Cup Championship, Dale Jarrett.
If previous years are any indication, then the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup will be nothing short of exhilarating. Kenseth, Johnson, Harvick, Busch, Hamlin, Burton, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne are all in the chase and one of them will walk away a champion.
The chase starts Sept. 17 at New Hampshire International Speedway at 12:30 p.m. on TNT.