LOUDON, N.H. - Fast start or frantic finish? All-out push or steady as she goes?
As the Chase for the Nextel Cup begins with Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, the 12 drivers seeking this year’s championship don’t really know yet what they need to do to wind up where Jimmie Johnson is right now – atop the standings.
The best-case scenario would be to have 10 top-five finishes with a win or two sprinkled in. If history is any guide, that would be enough.
Fifth place pays 155 points and the most points any driver has scored in the Chase was 1,484, by Kurt Busch en route to the 2004 title. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards had 1,483 points in 2005, and Jimmie Johnson had 1,430 on his way to the 2006 title.
“I think you’re going to have to be a sixth- to a fifth-place finisher for the final 10 races to win the championship,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief.
“But then again, I could be wrong. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Last year, for instance, Johnson earned only 397 points in the first four Chase races, but 1,033 after that. In the final six races, Johnson won once, finished second four times and ninth once.
“If you get off to a fast start in the Chase, you start protecting,” Johnson said.
“If you get off to a slow start, you start charging. That’s the balance you are trying to find – where the team works, that harmony of just working right week after week.”
You could make a case that Johnson is the favorite, because he won the past two races and starts the Chase with a 20-point lead. That’s 15 more points than anyone has started the playoff, thanks to the new format that gave Johnson 10 bonus points for each of his six regular-season wins.
Johnson, who has been in the Chase all three years it has existed, has won seven races while running as a Chase contender. No other driver has won more than twice while competing in the Chase, and seven of this year’s contenders have never won a race while battling for the title.
On the other hand, Denny Hamlin won at New Hampshire in July. Martin Truex Jr., a first-time Chase qualifier who starts 50 points behind Johnson at 5,010, finished third at New Hampshire and won at Dover.
Those tracks are the first two in the Chase.
“I think we’re just going to have to keep running top five like we have been all year long,” said Hamlin, who is 2-for-2 in making the Chase.
“We’ve been consistent and that goes a long way. The biggest thing is not to make mistakes. We know which race bit us last year.”
Hamlin finished 21st at Talladega and 28th at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in the middle of last year’s Chase and couldn’t recover.
Busch said he’s trying to be optimistic about all 10 races ahead of him, but knows it’s going to take a lot of good days and very few bad ones to wind up where he did in the Chase’s inaugural year. He especially has an eye on the five car of tomorrow races, including Sunday’s event.
“You can’t just ride around and finish seventh in these COT race and expect to be up at the top of the points,” Busch said. “You have to go for it. You have to be fast, and usually fast cars are easier to drive and the weekend just goes smoother.
“It’s those tough days when you have a 12th-place car, sliding around, and you have three guys on top of you and now you’re racing side-by-side with guys you don’t normally do that with. Those are the situations you want to stay away from.”