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Keeping Pace

Sun., Aug. 30, 2009, 11 p.m.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes

Juan Pablo Montoya relaxes on pit road. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR) (John Harrelson / The Spokesman-Review)
Juan Pablo Montoya relaxes on pit road. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR) (John Harrelson / The Spokesman-Review)

Juan Pablo Montoya, from Colombia, is in prime position to make his first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup appearance.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With his win at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) notched his 55th career NASCAR national series victory and more importantly, moved within 34 points of the all-important NASCAR Sprint Cup Series top 12.

Two races remain before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is pared down to 12 drivers — giving Busch two more opportunities to put himself in championship contention.

There’s plenty reason for optimism. The 34-point deficit is an historically small hurdle.

Three drivers in the five-year history of the Chase have made up at least a 34-point deficit with two races remaining.

The largest lead ever overcome with two-to-go was in 2006, when Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) erased a 90-point deficit to land a spot in what was then a 10-driver field.

In 2004, the Chase’s inaugural season, Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) and Jeremy Mayfield each were 35 points outside the top 10, yet still made the Chase.

Combined at Atlanta and Richmond — the two remaining tracks — Busch has two wins and a Driver Rating of 100.8.

As for the 55th win, Busch has said in the past that he’d like to match Richard Petty’s 200 victories.

“At some point I'd like to be able to win 200 races over all three series,” Busch said. “It's a pretty big number. It's not as good as Richard Petty's 200 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series … so we feel like we've got a shot at that hopefully. I've got plenty of years ahead of me, and we'll see if we can't give it a shot.”

Busch Drives To 55
Kyle Busch reached 55 NASCAR national series wins last weekend at Bristol, moving him into a tie with Rusty Wallace for ninth on the all-time list. Below is the top 10:
   Driver               Wins
1. Richard Petty     200
2. David Pearson    106
3. Dale Earnhardt     97
4. Darrell Waltrip      97
5. Mark Martin         94
6. Jeff Gordon          87
7. Bobby Allison      86
8. Cale Yarborough  83
9. Kyle Busch         55
    Rusty Wallace     55

Nine Chase Spots Remain — For 12 Drivers

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) have each clinched a spot in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

That leaves nine spots left to be had — and more than nine drivers who want one of them.

Mathematically, eight of those spots can be clinched this weekend. Realistically, only three likely will.

Any driver who leaves Atlanta with a 196-point lead over 13th-place will clinch a Chase spot. Furthermore, any driver with a 162-point lead over 13th-place will need only to start Race No. 26 at Richmond to clinch.

Currently, Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota), in fourth place, has a 230-point lead on 13th — meaning he can lose 34 points and still clinch. Put simply, if Hamlin finishes third or better, fourth and leads at least a lap or fifth and leads the most laps at Atlanta, he will clinch a Chase spot.

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford), in fifth, is 199 points ahead of 13th and can lose three points to that position. Though there are numerous possibilities for Edwards to clinch, only an Atlanta win will guarantee it.

Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), in sixth, holds a 192-point lead over 13th. He needs to gain four points to clinch. Like Edwards, there are a number of ways for that to happen, but only a win on Sunday would guarantee a clinch.

Those drivers currently in position seventh through 11th can mathematically clinch — but the scenarios are almost too far-fetched for it to happen. Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet) needs to gain 84 points over 13th, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) needs 75 points, Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) needs 132 points; Mark Martin needs 136 points; and Kasey Kahne needs 144 points.

With 195 points paid to a winner who leads the most laps, and 34 points paid to 43rd place, 161 points can be made up in a given race.

A Race Within A Race: The Battle For The Top Seed

Though much of the focus will be on the battle for a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup position, a fight within a fight is shaping up over the final two “regular season” races.

That’s the race for the top seed in the Chase, a spot currently held by Mark Martin.

Martin, with four wins, would have 40 bonus points going into the Chase’s first race at New Hampshire.

Once the Chase field is set, each of the top 12 driver’s points will be reset to 5,000. Then, 10 bonus points will be added for each win during the first 26 races to create the “seeding.”

The battle for the top seed seems like a three-driver contest: Martin, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

Martin, currently 10th in the points standings, has the more pressing matter of staying in the top 12.

But both Stewart and Johnson have three wins for 30 bonus points apiece, and the luxury of already having clinched a Chase spot.

That means the pressure is off — and winning is literally the only goal over the next two races.

“If the chance presents itself, we'll take a risk [if it means winning],” Johnson said. “We did at Michigan. We're going for the win. We'll try to do the opposite [of other teams' strategy] if that opportunity is there to go for a win."

But, statistically, Stewart owns the advantage. At Atlanta and Richmond, Stewart has a combined five wins, a series-high Driver Rating of 102.4 and a second-best Average Running Position of 10.1.

Watch for Kyle Busch, who also owns four wins. Busch, the top seed last season, sits 13th in the standings — 34 points outside the top 12.

International Flavor: Montoya, Ambrose Enjoying Career Years

Juan Pablo Montoya, from Colombia, is in prime position to make his first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup appearance.

Marcos Ambrose (No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota), from Australia, nabbed his second NASCAR Nationwide Series victory, and finished in the top five in two of the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

The success for both has come fast, speaking to their immense driving talent.

This is Montoya’s third season racing in the series, and it’s by far his best.

Though yet to win, Montoya’s 11 top-10 finishes in 2009 are more than his previous two seasons combined (six in 2007, three in 2008).

Next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Montoya has a mathematical shot at clinching a Chase berth that seemed highly unlikely at the start of 2009. If he leaves Atlanta with a 196-point lead over 13th place, he’ll clinch. Currently, he holds a 64-point advantage over 13th.

Still, his points position is a tenuous one. Just two weeks ago, Montoya seemed a shoe-in for a Chase spot. After two finishes outside the top 10, that comfort level has all but vanished.

After a sixth-place finish at Watkins Glen, Montoya was 154 points ahead of the Chase cut-off. Finishes of 19th at Michigan and 25th at Bristol has caused his cushion to shrink by 90 points.

There’s hope on the horizon, though — Atlanta Motor Speedway is the scene of Montoya’s first series top-five finish.

Though Ambrose is out of the Chase hunt, his first full season as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver must be considered a stellar one.

He sits 17th in points, ahead of such marquee veterans as Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) and Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet).

Plus his four top-five finishes put him in a tie for 11th-most on the series.

Three of those top 10s were at Talladega, Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen. But his third-place finish at Bristol last Saturday sealed Ambrose’s fate as a legit star-in-the-making.

During driver introductions at Bristol, Ambrose jokingly said to the sellout crowd, “I hope I finish.”

He finished, all right — and contended for the win. During Saturday night’s race, Ambrose scored a Driver Rating of 108.0 and had an Average Running Position inside the top 10.

“I love NASCAR,” Ambrose said. “It's the best form of racing I've ever experienced. The cars are hard to drive, way too much power, not enough tire, not enough brakes. It's a real challenge to survive out there. We're doing it.”

Loop Data: By The Numbers, No Shortage Of Storylines

A look at the statistics going into — and coming out of — the final off-week for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series show some interesting angles.

For instance:

13 — It’s the number of different winners this season (compared to 12 different winners in all of 2008). Three of those winners are first-timers: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and David Reutimann.

1.039 — In seconds, that’s the average margin of victory this season. If the growing trend of tight finishes continues, it will be the smallest MOV since the electronic scoring began in 1993.

14 —- Number of races that have an MOV under one second.

111.3Jimmie Johnson’s series-best Driver Rating. Though not the points leader, Johnson owns the top statistics in practically every key category. He also leads the series in Average Running Position (8.1), Fastest Laps Run (709), Laps Led (1,235) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (84.0%).

986 — Number of times Mark Martin has been passed during a green flag run, fewest on the series. The number is by far the lowest. Among those drivers who have competed in every event, Martin is the only driver who has been passed less than 1,000 times. In comparison, second-best in the category is Jeff Gordon’s 1,290 times passed.

42 — Positions lost by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final 10% of races this season. The number is fourth-worst in the series — though he’s in good company. Joining him in the bottom five is Mark Martin and Kyle Busch (which explains their precarious standings position) and Johnson (which might explain why he isn’t the points leader despite some stellar statistics). Last in the category is Martin Truex Jr., with 59 positions lost.

Earnhardt Gets On A Roll … Finally

Clearly, this is not the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. expected.

Mired in 21st place, Earnhardt is suffering through arguably his worst season in his 11-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.

He has only two top fives and five top 10s. In his rookie year of 2000 (which previously held the “least prolific” title), Earnhardt had three top fives and five top 10s — but also had two wins.

But there are signs that things are starting to turn around. Earnhardt scored back-to-back top-10 finishes at Michigan (third) and Bristol (ninth). It was his first consecutive top-10 finishes in almost a year. The last time he doubled up in top 10s was at Richmond and New Hampshire.

Digging deep into his statistics may tell the story about Earnhardt’s recent resurgence.

In the last two races, Earnhardt has improved his position from the race’s mid-point. At Michigan, he was running 16th at the halfway point, yet finished third. At Bristol, he improved 16 positions, charging from 25th at the halfway point all the way to ninth at the finish.

Over the first 23 races, Earnhardt improved his mid-point position only three times.

The momentum should continue, as Earnhardt has a combined four wins, 16 top fives and 20 tops 10s at Atlanta and Richmond.

Up Next: Atlanta Motor Speedway And Richmond International Raceway

Two races — and two tracks — remain in the Race to the Chase. Those two races will be the difference between fighting for a championship, or working toward 2010.

Most of the focus will be on the top 12 bubble — and rightly so.

Will Kyle Busch get in? Can Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer make a charge from 14th and 15 place? If so, who gets bounced?

The statistics over the next two races suggest that current top-12 residents Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya could be in trouble.

At Atlanta and Richmond, Kahne has a Driver Rating of 86.8, Newman has an 82.4 and Montoya has a 70.6. Those figures rank 12-14 among the top 12.

Busch and Bowyer own the top stats among the “Bubble Boys.” Busch has a Driver Rating of 100.8. Bowyer’s is 90.6.

Fast Facts

Next Race: Pep Boys Auto 500

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 6

The Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway; 1.54 mile oval

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

The Distance: 325 laps/500.5 miles

TV: ESPN , 7 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN Radio and Sirius Satellite

2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

2008 Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule: Saturday—11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Final Practice, 1-2:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 4:40 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers
    Driver                      Points
 1 Tony Stewart             3,564
 2 Jimmie Johnson         3,344
 3 Jeff Gordon                3,310
 4 Denny Hamlin            3,141
 5 Carl Edwards             3,110
 6 Kurt Busch                3,103
 7 Ryan Newman           2,995
 8 Greg Biffle                 2,986
 9 Juan Pablo Montoya   2,975
10 Mark Martin              2,971
11 Kasey Kahne            2,963
12 Matt Kenseth            2,945

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.