Three-man race? -- Not so fast, say Chasers
September 28, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DOVER, Del. -- Pundits and super fans may be all too ready to declare the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup a three-man race only two weeks into the 10-race run for the title.
After all, Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch have finished first and second in both Chase races with five-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson’s pair of top-fives enough to keep him lurking just behind.
But there are 10 other drivers in the Chase field who aren’t so convinced the class of the field has been crowned yet. The suggestion that anything is settled really rankles the rank and file who absolutely know that with eight more weeks of racing -- beginning with Sunday’s AAA 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Dover International Speedway -- anything is still possible.
“To be two races into the Chase and say it’s a three-man race already seems silly,’’ Greg Biffle said almost scoldingly on Friday. “Take, for instance, last week. We finished third and moved up six spots in the points to fifth.’’
So while Kenseth leads Busch and Johnson by 14 and 18 points, respectively, Biffle’s Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards is fourth, a healthy 36 points back. Biffle is 38 behind and Kevin Harvick, 39.
That’s a sizeable gap between third place Johnson and fourth place Edwards. But sizable is not insurmountable.
“It’s easy to look at it that way, but I’m not putting my guard down,’’ Johnson said.
“We still have Talladega and a lot of these tracks can take out multiple cars. You have that risk here [at Dover] if something happens, you usually take a car or two with you.
“I’m certainly looking forward and there are only two guys that I’m paying attention to right now. So in that mindset, sure you can call it a three-man race. But it’s still way too early to count many out yet.’’
Busch and Harvick have publicly declared their disinterest in the standings. Harvick claimed not to even know who was leading or by how much.
“I think it’s too early,’’ Busch said of anyone declaring it a three-man race. “But also I’m not paying attention to the points. I could guess who’s first, second and third in points, but I really don’t care right now.
“We’re just with the mindset to continue on the path that we have all year long and that’s to continue to run consistently and to get good finishes and if we can win, we try to win.
“I’ve also felt all along that if you finish second every single Chase race then you could have a really good shot at winning a championship that way.’’
When it comes to a winning record, Biffle has multiple wins at four of the remaining eight venues, including Dover, Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami. Edwards and Harvick have similarly impressive records at upcoming tracks.
Even Clint Bowyer, who is 10th in points (48 behind Kenseth) refuses to concede anything yet. He reminded reporters Saturday that he made up nearly 100 points on Johnson in the final four weeks of the regular season.
“It wasn’t like we were running down a start-and-park,’’ Bowyer joked.
Sunday’s polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seen extreme fortunes in two weeks already. His Chevy had engine troubles in the Chase opener at Chicago, but he rebounded with a sixth place at New Hampshire last week moving him from last in the Chase standings to 11th -- 62 behind Kenseth.
His crew chief Steve Letarte took to Twitter this week insisting that the team wasn’t giving up, but realistically needed some wins to mount any challenge regardless of whether the championship leaders suffer an off-week or two.
“I expect our competition to be tough every week,’’ said Earnhardt, who has wins at four of the upcoming Chase tracks.
“Nothing really surprises me when they perform well. We are not really going to count points and I’m not going to sit here and figure out how far I’m behind and come up with some equation that I need to be perfect to gain points each week.
“We are just going to show up and try to run hard and be smart. If we can unload great cars like this it makes that all easier. We are going to try to win some races before the year is out. I would be really disappointed if we don’t win a race this season because I think we are a better team than we were last year.
“I felt we’ve come so close so many times so we would just like to get out there and get some trophies. The points will take care of themselves when you are doing that.”
Even 12th place Joey Logano refused to concede anything with two months of competition left and 69 points to make up.
“We’re not out of it yet, we can still do it,’’ Logano said.
“The fat lady isn’t singing yet. She may be warming up her voice, but she isn’t singing.’’