LOUDON, N.H. – Ten weeks ago, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin had become enemies as well as teammates.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t blown an engine in three months. Jimmie Johnson hadn’t started his summer swoon.
Kurt Busch was just waking up. Bobby Ginn was a team owner, not a defendant.
“A lot happens in this sport in 10 weeks,” Jeff Burton said.
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Especially when a championship is to be decided, as there will be as the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup starts with Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway.
As the sport’s playoffs begin, Johnson leads Jeff Gordon by 20 points and 12th-place Clint Bowyer, who’ll start from the pole Sunday, by 60.
With as many good cars and good teams as there are in the Chase, 60 points could be significant.
But 10 weeks ago, on July 8, Busch was 121 points behind 12th-place Earnhardt Jr. after having finished third the night before in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.
That was also the race in which Stewart and Hamlin wrecked each other and then blamed each other, precipitating a Joe Gibbs intervention the next weekend at Chicagoland.
If that seems it happened an eon ago, you begin to understand what’s in front of the 12 championship contenders.
The Chase is neither a sprint nor a marathon. It’s both, or some hybrid.
Perhaps it could best be compared to the 400-meter hurdles, complete with a staggered start. But instead of hurdles the obstacles all are of different shapes, sizes and nature, like some wacky, all-out steeplechase.
Early on it’s mostly about staying in your own lane, worrying about your car and your team.
“That's the way I approach it,” Johnson said. “I've always been under the school of thought that I'm my own worst enemy.”
Right after the Daytona race in July, Johnson finished 37th at Chicago and 39th at Indianapolis to drop to ninth in the standings.
“I was concerned,” Johnson said.
“We were running well and having poor finishes and I knew if we weren't running well and weren't finishing we'd be in big trouble.”
But Johnson has finished in the top five in five of the six races since, including victories in the previous two. So now the driver who last year rallied from a 39th-place finish here to win his first career Cup title is feeling quite good about things.
“We'll just roll with it and see what happens,” said Johnson, who starts fourth Sunday.
“I can say that I'm much more relaxed. ... To remember a year ago what the emotions were like and how tense and nervous I wasit's so different now. I can't tell you how excited I am to go racing and get in the middle of this and see where it shakes out.”
Gordon starts 18th Sunday, 10th best among the Chase drivers.
“The intensity level has stepped up,” Gordon said.
“Everybody wants to make a statement and say, ‘We came to play.’
"I think it's important to show early on who is going to rise to the top and who will be the team to beat. But it happens moment by moment. One moment's in practice and the next moment is qualifying and the next is in the race. All that really matters is when you come out of here, who scored the best finish.”
Carl Edwards crashed his primary car on Friday, but bounced back to qualify 11th for Sunday’s race. Is that a bad sign that he wrecked or a good one that he rebounded?
It’s hard to resist that kind of instant analysis. Whatever happens Sunday will undoubtedly alter the perceived championship chances of one or more of the contenders, and it’s entirely likely that changed perception will wind up being way off base.
“We won this race last year and didn't win the championship,” said Kevin Harvick, who starts eighth Sunday.
“I think it's all about 10 weeks. ...It's not about the first week, it's not about the last week. It's about all 10.”
Four former champions start the Chase in the top five in points.
Johnson, Edwards, Busch and Stewart all seemingly come in with momentum from recent success.
Martin Truex Jr., who starts on the outside of the front row alongside fellow Chase rookie Bowyer Sunday, has a long history of success in support series at this track and finished third here in July.
Hamlin won that race earlier this season in which 10 of this year’s Chase drivers finished 13th or better.
In all of that, what is coincidence and what is trend?
“I’d be surprised if you don’t see the top 10 finishers this weekend be Chase drivers,” said Busch, who starts third and comes in riding a streak of nine straight finishes of 11th or better.
“It’s going to be that intense and I think the caliber of drivers in this Chase is going to push each other harder to finish each week.”
And in six or eight weeks they’ll round the final turn and they – and we – actually might have a clear idea of how this race is going.