October 6, 2009 in Sports

Chase suddenly tighter

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Longtime NASCAR fans deride the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as manufactured drama that has ruined the racing.

Try telling that to the five drivers who used Kansas Speedway to gain points on leader Mark Martin.

“I think that’s why they made the Chase,” four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said after chipping 19 points off his deficit Sunday.

“There’s a lot of racing left. There’s a lot of great competition, and the competition is as even as I’ve ever seen it.”

Nobody thought that seven days earlier, when three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson routed the competition at Dover. He led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin across the finish line, and closed his gap to 10 points behind Martin.

Through two Chase races, there were two Hendrick cars at the front of the standings and only two other drivers within 100 points of the leader. There was also a little bit of panic that this Chase was going to be another Hendrick runaway.

Then came Sunday at Kansas, and Martin and Johnson couldn’t maintain the dizzying pace they’d set in the first two Chase races. Martin finished seventh, Johnson was ninth and everyone else pounced. Title contenders grabbed 10 of the top 11 spots – “There was nothing but Chase guys up front,” fifth-place finisher Denny Hamlin said – and the Hendrick stars suddenly looked human.

There were just three drivers within 100 points of the leader before Kansas. Now there’s six, and seventh-place Gordon is 103 back.

Just like that, NASCAR has a real title race on its hands.

“We’ve got a great shot at this still,” said race-winner Tony Stewart, who ended an eight-week slide just in time to give Chevrolet the manufacturers’ title while climbing back into contention for his own championship.

Stewart sliced 39 points off of Martin’s lead, and now sits fourth, 67 points out.

“It shows how competitive this Chase is,” Stewart said.

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