NASCAR & Auto Racing

If they can make it there ...

NEW YORK – Matt Kenseth was the first winner in this Chase for the championship, pocketing $60 from his rival drivers by correctly guessing how late the group would be in leaving for their first appearance.

Kyle Busch collected next, picking the exact minute that Denny Hamlin would arrive for his first obligation.

Meanwhile, two-time champion Tony Stewart was brainstorming how he could slip in a reference to the upcoming “National Guacamole Day” on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

NASCAR’s top 12 drivers hit New York for a two-day blitz that turned into an unusual bonding session just days before they’ll square off in a 10-race chase to the Nextel Cup title.

“I really wasn’t looking forward to being here, but it’s been pretty cool,” Martin Truex Jr., a first-time Chase participant, said Thursday at the ESPN Zone.

“I usually stay to myself at the track, and being here has given me a chance to get to know a lot of these guys. I don’t normally talk to many of them, and it’s been pretty funny to watch some of these guys interact.”

The activities started Wednesday when the group set a precedent on the “Late Show” by expanding the traditional top 10 list to 12 for the first time in show history. They shared a good laugh over some of the lines – defending champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 1 reason he loves racing was “Unlike most guys, I like it when my wife says, ‘You’re too fast.'"

Then they pulled out their best suits and gathered with NASCAR chairman Brian France for a private dinner with chef Gordon Ramsey at The London NYC.

As they trickled back into the hotel, the pools kicked into high gear: Hamlin had headed out for the evening, and no one was certain he’d make it back before his wake-up call. Side bets were being placed on what time the chronically late Hamlin would be ready to leave in the morning.

“I’m taking 7:56,” Busch said. “That’s 10 minutes late.”

“Not a chance,” Clint Bowyer said. “Give me 30 minutes late.”

When a sleepy Hamlin made his way into the lobby, he was adamant he was right on time. He then referred to an updated schedule that showed he was, indeed, barely one minute late.

Didn’t matter anyway, Stewart wasn’t in the lobby yet and the action was on as to whether or not he’d make it at all to their appearance at “The Early Show.” The two-time champion showed up with plenty of time to spare, but the avocado lovers celebrating Guacamole Day outside the studio caught his eye.

“I’m going to find a way to mention that while talking about the Chase,” Stewart promised.

Taunted by the others that he couldn’t do it, the challenge was on. One could almost see his mind spinning as he stood under the stage lights waiting for his opportunity.

Stewart naturally delivered, and word of his performance spread to “Live with Regis and Kelly,” where five other drivers were preparing to throw pies at a Kelly Ripa stand-in. Not to be outdone by his rival, Kevin Harvick vowed to find a way to mention guacamole during their appearance.

He, too, delivered and the whole discussion left the avocado-obsessed Johnson salivating.

“I can’t believe there’s a Guacamole Day. That’s my day. A holiday for me,” he said. “We need to go find some Mexican food.”

But lunch was already arranged, as all 12 met back up at ESPN Zone before a two-hour media blitz.

Busch, noting that NASCAR was picking up the tab, ordered three appetizers and a salad. The ribbing was on, as drivers surrounded his many plates to pick from his food and wondered what sort of secrets they might get the young to driver to spill.

Just two weeks ago, he upstaged Joe Gibbs Racing’s announcement that it was moving to Toyota by inadvertently confirming the impending switch.

“I’ve got nothing to announce today,” Busch said. “I’ll let you guys know when I do.”

Hamlin, stuffed full with chicken wings, a chicken sandwich and plenty of sugary soda, was finally wide awake and getting restless.

“Who planned this thing?” he demanded. “Why are we just sitting here? I want to go shopping. I so can rock some Prada at the track this weekend.”

But the break had been working into the schedule as downtime, and the drivers used the time for more getting to know one another. When the day finally ended, they went their separate ways and headed to New Hampshire, site of Sunday’s Chase-opening race.

For the next 10 weeks they’ll race one another for the championship in what has the potential to be an epic battle.

“This day was good,” Busch said. “But now it’s over and the Chase is on.”

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