Weekend Feature: First six races suggest tight race for Chase positions
By: By Reid Spencer, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas -- In microcosm, you can argue whether the racing is better with NASCAR's new Sprint Cup car or with the car that preceded it.
You can point out that lead changes in the second full-time season for the new car are down from last year and that individual races, in terms of laps led, have been dominated by one or two drivers -- Kurt Busch at Atlanta, Kyle Busch at Bristol and Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon at Martinsville.
In a larger sense, however, there's no argument that -- top to bottom -- the Cup series is far more competitive this year than it has been since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced in 2004.
If that seems contradictory, look at the numbers. After six races last year, four drivers were within 100 points of 12th-place Clint Bowyer, as the race for the Chase already had begun to string out.
As of last Sunday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville, the sixth race of the 2009 season, 11 drivers were within 100 points of 12th-place Matt Kenseth, the number 12 being relevant as the final Chase-eligible position.
Last year, the 30th-place driver after six races, Jamie McMurray, was 246 points behind Bowyer. This year, David Ragan and Reed Sorenson are tied for 29th place, a mere 135 points behind Kenseth -- less than one race's worth.
Admittedly, Bowyer was 175 points behind leader Jeff Burton at this point in 2008, as opposed to the 255-point advantage Jeff Gordon enjoys over Kenseth, but that's about the only instance where the field was tighter last year.
Whether more teams have gotten a handle on NASCAR's new racecar, or whether the ban on testing at NASCAR tracks has prevented the more well-heeled teams from perfecting the refinements that might give them an edge over the competition, the Chase appears more wide-open than ever this year.
"I think it's a little bit of both," said Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge. "Everybody has had a lot of time with this car now. To me, it seems to race better with other cars, and other cars around us seem to be racing better with this car.
"I think that's trial-and-error and making good improvements. I think the testing (ban) has probably helped that also. You see the good cars even have some bad days, and to me, that's kind of cool to Jimmie Johnson not to be the fastest guy every week -- just some of the weeks. So hopefully it keeps working this way, and it'll create a championship run and a good points battle, and you'll have a few different winners throughout the year."
Jeff Gordon says he hasn't thought about why the race for the Chase is so tight at this point, but he does believe that other teams' progress with the new car has made qualifying and track position more important than ever.
"There's a lot of competition," Gordon said. "Other than Kyle at Bristol -- he really came through the field unbelievable; he had a car that could pass, could maneuver, could move through traffic unlike I've seen in sometime… but to me, I still think we have an aerodynamic issue with this car.
"You just really get stuck behind cars, and I don't think we've got it 100 percent figured out. We don't talk about it as much anymore, but the issue hasn't gone away. We've gotten better with the cars. I think everybody's made the cars, from just a speed standpoint, much more competitive among one another. The times are very, very tight, and that's only going to make track position that much more critical."
As the Chase cutoff at Richmond approaches in September, position in the standings will be critical, too, for obvious reasons. And like the tight times run by the cars themselves, the race for the Chase likely will be just as hotly contested, if the first six races of the season are an indicator.