NASCAR & Auto Racing

Chase drivers don't really know what to expect

LOUDON, N.H. - Jeff Gordon enjoyed what he lost after his first Cup title nearly as much as the trophy, money and prestige he earned. He was able to say goodbye to the pressure that comes with chasing a title.

Once he won a championship, then another to prove he was among NASCAR's elite, the rest were a bonus.

"All of a sudden, there's really no pressure," said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion.

There are eight drivers in the 12-driver Chase for the championship field that would love to know that feeling. Gordon, Tony Stewart (2) and Matt Kenseth all have series championships, and Jimmmie Johnson is the two-time defending champ going into the 10-race Chase that starts Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Johnson called driving in the 10 races in his 2006 title run absolutely "no fun," and that he didn't enjoy his successes as much as he did during the first 26 races. Winning one championship eased the pressure in last year's Cup title pursuit, and he found those midweek nerves didn't fray as much as they did in 2006.

"I need to have fun," Johnson said Friday. "I think I operate better and my team operates better when we're enjoying ourselves and having some fun."

Johnson had some fun this season with four wins and enters Sunday third in the standings. Kyle Busch is the leader and Carl Edwards sits in second place - the pair combined for 14 wins - leaving some fans and experts believing the championship will be won by one of those three drivers.

"I think all the talk about the three front guys running away with this thing, that's fine, but I don't know if that's how it's going to be," Edwards said.

True, but if the leading drivers can keep their missteps to a minimum and consistently finish out front, Busch, Edwards and Johnson might be battling for that title over the final few races. Even Gordon concedes if Busch keeps up his career-best season, there might be "a deficit we might never be able to overcome."

Edwards understands Gordon's message about pressure.

"There's pressure out here every week on the track and everybody wants to win a championship," Edwards said. "But I can only equate it to winning a race. Once you win a couple of races, everything gets a lot easier. It's the same way with championships and I hope I find out real soon."

All the drivers toward the back of the 12-driver pack hope they can take advantage if a wreck or any other mistake takes out the top contenders.

"You have one race that things don't go well, one bad pit stop, one tire down at the wrong time, one incident with 10 to go, it's 'game on,'" said Jeff Burton, who starts seventh.

The brief history of the Chase shows drivers can win with one hiccup.

Kurt Busch survived one 42nd-place finish in 2004, but won a race and had five other top fives. Stewart finished 31st to go with two wins in 2005. Johnson started his title hopes by finishing 39th in the Chase race at New Hampshire two years ago, then rebounded with a five-race span where he had one win and four seconds.

Last year, four victories in the final 10 races and no finish worse than 19th allowed him to defend his title.