NASCAR & Auto Racing

Race has often favored Chase's blue-chippers

CONCORD, N.C. - Oklahoma vs. Texas?

The NASCAR equivalent to that would be Hendrick Motorsports vs. Roush Racing as the Chase for the Sprint Cup reaches its halfway point in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Joe Gibbs Racing? Maybe Georgia or Southern California - or even a Clemson - a team that looked like something special only to have events knock them off-kilter?

And then there's Richard Childress Racing, a team that also has a fourth of this year's Chase teams and that one of its drivers, Clint Bowyer, this week called "solid." Solid is nice, sort of like Penn State or Texas Tech, two teams building good resumes but not, at least not yet, in the playoff spotlight.

A Chase driver has won every October race here since the playoff format came to Cup racing in 2004, and championship contenders are four-for-four in this year's Chase races. Combine that with the fact that Thursday's rainout of qualifying puts the 12 drivers racing for the title in the first six rows of the starting field and Saturday night shapes up as a battle among NASCAR's big boys.

"I think this weekend is going to be really interesting," said Jeff Burton, who starts fourth and sits 99 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the Chase standings.

"We had a test here a few weeks ago and every team was here. ...You could run the very bottom and you could run the very top in the test, which means in the race you're certainly going to be able to run a lot of different grooves."

The buzz following that test was that Roush Fenway Racing's Fords, particularly those driven by Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, looked particularly strong.

"Greg was extremely fast in testing and I think if we can lean on that a little bit, we'll be good," Edwards said. "I am just excited to get some racing in. It's going to be fun."

A win here for Edwards, or even a good finish provided it helps him cut into the 72-point lead Johnson brings into the race, would redirect the focus off Edwards' role in starting the big wreck on Lap 174 of last week's race at Talladega. The fallout from that continued here on Thursday when Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who also was involved in the Talladega wreck that began when Edwards bumped Biffle, scuffled briefly.

Biffle, who's 77 points back in the standings, isn't ducking suggestions he's a threat to win here. He started this year's Chase with two straight victories. but after a third at Kansas he wound up 24th a week ago.

"We have really come on strong in the last eight races," Biffle said. "To start the Chase out like we did has been spectacular. ...I feel like we have one of the cars to beat here. That's big-time confidence and a lot of momentum for these races, so I feel good about the race cars that we've been able to put together."

But as good as Biffle, Edwards and teammate and fellow Chase competitor Matt Kenseth might be Saturday night, Roush-Fenway's numbers here aren't great. Of that trio, only Kenseth has won here and that came in his rookie season. The last time a Roush-owned car won a points race here was in May 2002 when Mark Martin went to victory lane.

Johnson and Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon have as many career wins here - 10 - as Roush's Chase trio have top-five finishes. Johnson won five times in six races here from 2003 to 2006, and then Gordon won the October race a year ago. The third Hendrick Chase driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has top-10 finishes in half of his 18 Charlotte starts but has not won a points race at the track.

The three Childress drivers are lined up directly behind Johnson, Edwards and Biffle in the standings and in Saturday's starting lineup. Bowyer is 53 points behind Burton and 19 points ahead of Harvick.

"It has to close pretty quick," Bowyer said of the 152-gap between his team and Johnson's. "We’re running out of time."

Charlotte has not been the best track for RCR in recent years. No Childress-owned car has won here since 1994 and late Dale Earnhardt had all four of RCR's wins at this 1.5-mile track.

"The hard thing is that you're trying to close the gap on a team that's two-time champions and know the way around the block. These boys have done this and they're very good and they don't make mistakes. ...At Talladega they went a lap down early and didn't seem like they had a strong car, but they survived the melees and got a good finish.

"That's what you have to do to win championships. ...But if they stub their toe we've got to be there for the take and certainly a good run here can do just that."

Bowyer said RCR's teams just need a bit more to compete with the teams they're chasing. "We've got the people, we've got the resources," he said. "We've just got to get a little bit better. But it's hard to do that. ...It's not one little thing. You're not going to find that. It's a bunch of little bitty things."

Little things have piled up to all but bury the title hopes of the Gibbs teams.

Tony Stewart won last week at Talladega for his first 2008 victory, but he's 203 points back in seventh and would need a torrid stretch as well as some help from the top three or four to get back into the hunt.

Stewart has the most recent win here for the Gibbs team, in the fall race in 2003.

Kyle Busch won eight times in the regular season but hasn’t finished better than 15th in a Chase race and he's 331 points back in 11th.

"We're just trying to go as high as we can go," Busch said. "If there's a shot to get to fifth or a shot to get to third, that's all fine. We just try to do every week what we've done all year long and finish up front."

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