Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With two races completed, it's looking
more like this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be a battle
among three drivers -- Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth, who's in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, is off to a perfect
start, winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. His teammate, Busch, has been
impressive as well, finishing second in both races. Kenseth holds a 14-point
lead over Busch, while Johnson is 18 points behind after placing fifth at
Chicagoland and fourth at New Hampshire.
Round 3 in the 10-race Chase is Sunday at Dover. After Dover, the series heads
to Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before
the season concludes at Homestead. Talladega, a restrictor-plate track, is the
crapshoot race while Martinsville is the lone short-track event in the Chase.
"To be able to contend and to be able to try to race for a championship,
you've got to be good everywhere," Kenseth said. "You have all kinds of
different sizes and shapes of racetracks, and when you're racing against that
whole group, you look at what the 48 (Johnson) can do and the 18 (Busch). You
look at all those guys, and they're going to be good everywhere, so you better
be good everywhere if you're thinking that you're going to be a contender."
Winning the first two races in the Chase doesn't necessarily guarantee that
you'll claim the championship. In 2008, Greg Biffle began the playoffs with
back-to-back victories at New Hampshire and Dover and then finished third at
Kansas before he tumbled from there, finishing third in the point standings.
Johnson won five of the last eight races that season to claim his third of
five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
"I won the first two Chase races before and then didn't win the championship,"
Biffle said. "Anything can happen. (Kenseth and Busch) have good momentum, and
they've got good, fast cars."
Biffle's third-place finish at New Hampshire moved him from 11th to sixth in
points (-38). It was his first top-five run since his victory three months ago
Two years ago, Tony Stewart started the Chase by winning at Chicagoland and
New Hampshire but lost momentum by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at
Kansas. Stewart bounced back with six straight top-10 finishes, including
three victories. He ended the season in a points tie with Carl Edwards but
captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the year compared to only
one for Edwards.
It's likely we'll see the battle for this year's championship come down to the
last lap at Homestead.
"Anything can happen anywhere," Kenseth said. "You can be at your best track
and have whatever happen and get a bad finish. But we certainly have a lot of
confidence in the next three tracks coming up for sure. In the past, they've
been good tracks for us. I felt like we were real strong at Dover in the
spring, and I know I had a mechanical problem, but I thought we were pretty
strong when we ran there."
While Biffle started the '08 Chase 2-0, Busch's title hopes that season
quickly went up in smoke when he suffered engine failure in the first two
events. He finished 34th at New Hampshire and then 43rd at Dover. Busch won
eight races during the regular season and was considered a strong favorite to
win the championship. He ended the season 10th in points.
Busch is off to his best start in the Chase. He scored four wins during the
regular season, including a victory in April at Texas.
"It's nice to get a strong start," Busch said. "You'd rather finish first both
weeks than 43rd and get yourself up there and get a strong foundation built to
where you can continue on down the road and maybe not have so much pressure on
yourself to have to perform to catch up."
Johnson has improved significantly since the start of the Chase. He had
finished 28th or worse in the last four races of the regular season --
Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Johnson held a comfortable 75-point
lead prior to Michigan. He was one point behind Edwards after Richmond. The
Hendrick Motorsports driver entered the Chase as the second seed with 2,012
"To open with (two top-five finishes) is great," Johnson said. "We're in a
good spot. We haven't given up too many points, and we're going to one of my
best racetracks this week in Dover."
Johnson has seven wins at Dover, which is more than any other active driver.
While Kenseth, Busch and Johnson are currently in the top three in Chase
points, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne have a lot of catching
up to do.
Earnhardt finished 35th at Chicagoland after his engine expired late in the
event. At New Hampshire, he was forced to pit for a second time during an
early race caution due to a loose lug nut, but he rebounded nicely for a
sixth-place run. Earnhardt is now 62 points behind. He has not won since June
2012 at Michigan (47 races ago).
"Glad we were able to get a decent finish out of it," Earnhardt said. "Just
want to win one. I'm trying hard."
Logano, who's in the Chase for the first time, also had trouble with his motor
at Chicagoland, as he finished 37th. His 14th-place run this past Sunday has
him sitting 69 points behind Kenseth.
Kasey Kahne took the biggest hit in the Chase standings at New Hampshire. He
finished 37th due to an accident that occurred in the late stages. He is
now last in points (-71).
The Sports Network