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Keeping Pace

Tue., Sept. 29, 2009, 5:30 p.m.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Kansas

Jeff Gordon (Terry Renna / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Gordon (Terry Renna / The Spokesman-Review)

Jeff Gordon is looking to rebound from a slow start in the Chase. Mark Martin is 122 points ahead of Gordon, but this weekend could prove to be a spring board for Gordon’s drive for a fifth championship.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The third week of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup could present Jeff Gordon with his first solid opportunity to start a championship charge.

Sunday’s Price Chopper 400 presented by Kraft Foods will be held at Kansas Speedway, where Gordon has won twice in his storied career.

After Dover, six of the top 12 Chase contenders changed position in the points standings with Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) moving up the most spots (two) from 10th to eighth. Only 189 points separate first from 12th this week.

Unlike his two Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) who sit one-two in the standings, Gordon is looking to rebound from a slow start in the Chase. Martin is 122 points ahead of Gordon, but this weekend could prove to be a spring board for Gordon’s drive for a fifth championship.

Gordon won the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Kansas (2001-02). That 2001 victory more-or-less ensured he would win his fourth title. Gordon leads the series in top fives (five) and top 10s (six) at the 1.5-mile track.

This season Gordon has posted one win, 12 top fives and 19 top 10s in the first 28 races.

NASCAR Pre-Race Loop Data supports the notion Gordon could turn it around at Kansas. He is ranked third in three important Pre-Race Loop Data categories: Driver Rating (103.0); Average Running Position (10.093); and Laps In The Top 15 (85.2%).

Martin-Johnson Duel Has Developed At Top Of Standings

It’s a classic slugfest ongoing at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Two weeks into the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Mark Martin vs. Jimmie Johnson is a battle for the ages — literally.

On one side you have a 50-year-old, old-school veteran from the Southeast who is a four-time series championship runner-up. On the other side you have a 34-year-old new-era driver from California who is trying to win the championship for the fourth time in a row.

Johnson won this past weekend at Dover and for his rivals, starting with Martin, it was ominous. Johnson’s performance looked remarkably like the late-season form he has displayed in his three previous championship seasons.

Martin, meanwhile, applied the brakes to those seeking to go ahead and concede Johnson a fourth-straight title. After winning the first Chase race at New Hampshire, Martin ran a strong second to Johnson at Dover. By doing so, he retained the lead in the series standings by 10 points.

Johnson’s success is directly related to how well he has performed during the Chase over the last three years. Since the first Chase in 2004, Johnson has posted a series-leading 15 Chase race wins.

Eight of those came during his championship seasons of 2005-07.

And one of those eight came last year at Kansas when Johnson started on the pole and led 124 laps before capturing the checkered flag. He has made seven starts at Kansas, posting one win, two top fives, five top 10s and three poles.

Loop Data: Stewart, Gordon and Biffle Have Potential To Rally

With good reason, much of the focus going into this weekend surrounds points leader Mark Martin and second-place Jimmie Johnson. Only 10 points separate the two, and they rank 1-2 in victories this season.

But the statistics suggest that the two frontrunners might want to pay attention to at least three other drivers: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle.

As one of the three drivers to win a title under the Chase format (Johnson and Kurt Busch are the others), Stewart has a championship-tested strategy in place. He also owns some of the top statistics over the remaining eight tracks.

Stewart’s average Driver Rating of 98.0 at the next eight tracks rank second among his fellow championship contenders. Additionally, he has an Average Running Position of 11.3 (second-best) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 74.8 (second).

Stewart, the regular season points leader, now trails Martin by 106 points. Though most drivers point to Talladega or Martinsville as the Chase wild card, Kansas might be exactly that for Stewart. Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, he has lived on both sides of the success spectrum.

In 2005, Stewart finished fourth and followed it up with a Kansas victory in 2006. But in the last two races, he has finished 39th and 40th. The 39th-place run is a bit deceiving, though. In that race, he had one of the better cars, as his Driver Rating of 93.8 and his Average Running Position of 10.6 would suggest.

Overall in the last four Kansas races, Stewart has a Driver Rating of 91.3 (ninth), an Average Running Position of 12.9 (eighth), 30 Fastest Laps Run (eighth) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 67.8%.

Gordon, 122 points behind Martin, has more wins at the remaining eight tracks than any other driver – 25. His recent statistics there are likewise impressive. Since 2005, Gordon has a Driver Rating of 97.6, an Average Running Position of 12.7 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 71.2% at the remaining eight tracks.

Biffle, 138 points back, needs to take advantage of this weekend’s race at Kansas, a track at which he has excelled in his career. In terms of Driver Rating, Kansas ranks as Biffle’s second-best track. Over the last four races there, which includes a win, a runner-up finish and a third-place finish, Biffle has a Driver Rating of 117.4, a series-best Average Running Position of 6.4, 88 Fastest Laps Run, 86 Laps Led and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 95.2%.

Biffle ranks second overall in Kansas Driver Rating, behind Johnson, who has a 123.1. Johnson comes into this weekend looking for consecutive victories. His win at Dover last Sunday was near-perfect statistically. Johnson scored a Driver Rating of 149.2, eight-tenths short of a perfect 150.0. There have been 10 perfect ratings since the stats’ inception in 2005. Below is a list of the top Driver Ratings that came just short of perfection:

Near-Perfect Driver Ratings

Date           Track                Driver                      Rating
11/9/2008    Phoenix             Jimmie Johnson        149.9
8/27/2005    Bristol                Matt Kenseth           149.8
11/18/2007   Homestead        Matt Kenseth           149.8
11/5/2006    Texas                Tony Stewart            149.7
4/17/2005    Texas                Greg Biffle                149.2
7/17/2005    New Hampshire  Tony Stewart            149.2
3/22/2009    Bristol                Kyle Busch              149.2
9/27/2009    Dover                 Jimmie Johnson        149.2
10/19/2008  Martinsville         Jimmie Johnson        149.1
7/23/2006    Pocono              Denny Hamlin           149.0

Gordon Talks About Chase Chances

Q:  You said last week that you're every bit as hungry for a championship as you've ever been, still don't like to finish second or worse.  How does it wear on you like at Dover being up in possible position to win and slipping back, and then having those two teammates out of the same stable who are able to stay up there and win races and finish second? What kind of emotional or mental wear and tear is that on you?

Jeff Gordon: “Well, I mean, doesn't really matter if it's your teammate or not, when you've had the kind of year that we've had with the DuPont Chevrolet and we've been competitive and we've been consistent and it all comes down to those final 10 races in the Chase as to whether you're going to win the championship or not, and the first two don't go the way you'd like them to and you could get beat by anybody, and then your teammates are up there winning the first two races; it's very frustrating.  …

“We are still in this thing in our mind, and eight races, a lot is left to happen. And all we can do is just go try to turn things around this weekend in Kansas, and we know that if those guys continue the way that they are, we have got to win to gain points on them. And that's certainly a lot to ask for. But in my opinion, it's still doable.  The nice thing is when your teammates are running that good, you have all the data and information at your fingertips to be able to pull from. …

“We have got to live up to our full potential.  We were a second, or third-place car last week at Dover. We didn't finish there, so Jimmie and the 48 team, by far, they had the best car, the best team, and they won the race. So you have got to get your absolute best, and we haven't done that the first two races. …

“You know, 10 races is a lot of laps. It's a lot of points that can be lost and gained. There's going to be a lot more drama over these next eight, and all we can do is go and get our absolute best. I just hope that this weekend in Kansas, our absolute best is a car and a team that's capable of winning, and we pull that off.”

Home Sweet Kansas: Edwards, Bowyer Long For Backyard Victory 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) and Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) both count Kansas Speedway as their home track since both hail from towns only several hours’ drive away. 

Both also hope to count on a win in Sunday’s Price Chopper 400.

It would be a first for either driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, plus, ease what’s been a frustrating season to date for both.

Edwards, last year’s series runner-up, has yet to win after posting a series-high nine wins in 2008. He’s in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but on the fringes, for now.

The Columbia, Mo., native ranks 11th heading into his home-track weekend. He trails leader Mark Martin by 153 points. He’s also winless in 2008, and has been competing with a broken right foot since suffering the injury during a Frisbee game with friends on Sept. 2.

Last year at Kansas, Edwards’ daring, last-lap attempt to pass leader and eventual winner Jimmie Johnson was the talk of the race.

“If I can win at Kansas, that would be the biggest win on the schedule for me,” Edwards said. “The Daytona 500 would be great. The Brickyard 400 would be great. But Kansas, I don’t know if you could top that just because it’s so close to home.

“Last year was such an amazing race and I thought we were going to get it. It was so close.”

Bowyer, a native of Emporia, Kan., knows similar frustration. He missed this year’s Chase after participating in the ‘07 and ‘08 versions and heads to Kansas 15th in the standings.

Like Edwards, a Bowyer win at Kansas would be more than restorative.

“Growing up, racing at Lakeside Speedway five miles down the road, driving by the place as it was being built, I dreamed about how cool it would be to race there,” Bowyer said. “To get to do that now, in the premier division of racing, is pretty cool. To think that you have a chance at winning there makes it even more incredible. 

“It would be pretty big on my list of accomplishments if we were able to win there."

As the defending NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, Bowyer also will participate in Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300.

He won last week’s NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Dover International Speedway — his second win of 2009 in nine starts — and has three consecutive top-five finishes at Kansas.

“Everybody wants a little piece of you whether it be family, friends or sponsors that have helped me through the years,” Bowyer said. “It’s a fun and exciting weekend. It’s a long weekend, too. When the weekend is over, I’m worn out, but we’ve always had a good time.”

NSCS Etc. 

Chevrolet Close To Manufacturers’ Title
Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Price Chopper 400, Chevrolet could clinch the 2009 manufacturers’ title this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

If so, it would be the 33rd such title for Chevrolet and the seventh consecutive one. The manufacturers’ championship debuted in 1950.

What’s necessary for Chevrolet to clinch: Chevy’s top-finishing driver on Sunday must finish ahead of Toyota’s top-finishing driver.

Office Depot, Stewart Team Up For Charity

Office Depot and Tony Stewart are joining the Office Depot Foundation on Wednesday to donate more than 2,200 backpacks to Kansas City-area nonprofit organizations and schools.

“Back-To-School Backpack Celebration,” happens at 4 p.m. CT at the Office Depot store at 4851 North Oak Traffic Way in Kansas City. Guests include Kansas City mayor Mark Funkhouser and Shawna Searcy, Clay County Field Representative for Congressman Sam Graves.

Up Next: Auto Club Speedway

Auto Club Speedway hosts the fourth race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — the Pepsi 500 — next Sunday, Oct. 11 (3:15 p.m. start on ABC).

Jimmie Johnson is the defending winner and polesitter.

Johnson is tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins at Auto Club (three).  Kurt Busch leads all drivers with three poles there.

Gordon and Johnson share another track mark — the most top fives (eight). But Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford) has the most top 10s there, with 10.

Fast Facts

The Race: Price Chopper 400

The Place: Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Oct. 4

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 267 laps / 400 miles

TV: ABC, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128; (Local: KCSP/610 AM)

2008 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule: Friday—Practice, Noon-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:40 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:50-1:50 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers
    Driver                     Points
 1 Mark Martin              5,400
 2 Jimmie Johnson        5,390
 3 Juan Pablo Montoya  5,335
 4 Kurt Busch               5,325
 5 Tony Stewart            5,294
 6 Denny Hamlin           5,292
 7 Ryan Newman          5,290
 8 Jeff Gordon               5,278
 9 Greg Biffle                5,262
10 Brian Vickers           5,249
11 Carl Edwards           5,247
12 Kasey Kahne           5,211

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Keeping Pace

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