Race to the Chase begins

Race to the Chase begins

Race to the Chase begins
Associated Press

Titles, nicknames and catch phrases abound in sports. So it's not surprising that we now have "The Race to the Chase," the unofficial name for the next 10 stops on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule.

Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway is the 17th race of the season. When the Cup drivers return to Loudon, N.H., for the Sylvania 300 on Sept. 16, it will be the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship in which only the top 12 drivers are eligible to win the title.

So how much can it mean to the drivers who hope to win the championship to run well at NHIS in July?

"It's definitely a race that you need to run well in just because the first race at New Hampshire leads into the second race at New Hampshire," said Kurt Busch, who has two Cup wins on the 1.058-mile oval. "If you have success in July, it usually translates into a good race in September."

Busch, who won the first Chase in 2004, is currently 16th in the standings, trailing 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 171 points.

"We don't have that much time to make up ground, so we've got to start doing that at New Hampshire," he said. "We need to start picking up some points and I think we can do it. This team is really coming together and, with our new crew chief, Pat Tryson, I feel like there's a renewed optimism and a very positive feeling."

The big question mark this year is NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which will make its eighth race appearance and first at New Hampshire on Sunday.

Does that mean the teams can just throw away their notes from previous races there?

"So far it's been 50-50 on the tracks where we've run the COT cars," Busch said. "As far as the way that some of your past leads right into the new car for the good, and then it goes for the bad as well. So there's new things and new concerns that come up each and every week with the car.

"And, so far, on the flat tracks like Richmond and Phoenix, we've done well at Penske Racing. So we feel like that can help us this weekend with starting off pretty good out of the gate with our COT Dodge Avenger."

Greg Erwin, crew chief for 17th-place Greg Biffle, 199 points behind Earnhardt, said, "Were taking the same car we raced earlier this year at Dover and finished sixth. Right now, we feel that this is our best COT car.

"We tested a car similar to this at Milwaukee and feel that this is our best bet for this weekend. We had a good run last weekend at Infineon (finishing fifth) and, if we can keep it up for the next few weeks, we'll be able to gain some ground on the top 12."

The drivers closest behind Earnhardt heading into Sunday's race are Ryan Newman (96 points behind) and Jamie McMurray (129).

WITHIN THE LINES: It sounds like teams are going to be more careful about working on the COT.

NASCAR sent the message not to mess with the cars when it came down hard on Hendrick Motorsports for unauthorized modifications to the front fenders of reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion and current leader Jeff Gordon last week at Sonoma.

After finding their front fenders were too wide, NASCAR parked the No. 48 of Johnson and the No. 24 of Gordon last Friday, not allowing them to practice or qualify. They did allow them to race, but from the back of the pack. Gordon wound up seventh and Johnson 17th.

On Tuesday, the other shoe dropped, with NASCAR docking each driver 100 points, fining the crew chiefs $100,000 and suspending both, Chad Knaus (Johnson) and Steve Letarte (Gordon), for six races.

"It's harder to be creative because you have less area to work in," owner/driver Kyle Petty said. "If you said, 'I'm going to paint a picture on a four-by-four canvas,' that's 'OK,' but what NASCAR has done is given you a four-by-four-INCH canvas to paint your picture on. They haven't thrown in the brushes and paint, but they have made the area smaller to work within.

"The point is, the smaller the box, the gains aren't as big. The risks are a lot more, and we've seen that, but we need to still be innovative. You have to think way, way, way outside the box. We just aren't used to that."

Petty, who doubles these days as a TV analyst for TNT, said the teams will figure out how to work with the COT before long.

"It will come eventually," he said. "It always does. Every time there is a new rule change, it comes. There will be advantages gained, eventually. But, initially, we have to understand the inspection process and we have to understand the car, too.

"We only have raced it on smaller tracks and road courses. We haven't seen it on bigger tracks going 180 or 190 miles per hour. It's going to be different at Atlanta, Texas, Charlotte and tracks like that. That's when we'll see different changes."

The new car is being raced just 16 times this season, but will be run for the entire schedule in 2008.

CHANGING TIMES: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates made crew changes to its two Busch Series cars this week.

Crew chief Brad Parrott and his crew will move over to work on the No. 41 Dodge with drivers Reed Sorenson, David Stremme, Scott Pruett, Scott Lagasse Jr., and Bryan Clauson, while crew chief Brian Pattie and his team will work with drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Hamlin on the No. 42 Dodge.

"Since its inception, our Busch Series program has experienced some great accomplishments in a short period of time," explained team managing director John Fernandez. "We've had some highlights this year, as well, but both teams are lacking consistency.

"Our Busch program exists to develop our drivers, so we're hoping this move will get the teams' performance to where we think it should be right now and to prepare for the up-and-coming racers who will be in those cars later this year and seasons ahead."

The No. 41 team currently is 27th in the Busch Series owners points with two top-five finishes and three top-10s, while the No. 42 is 12th with one top-five and three top-10s.

Sorenson will drive the No. 41 and Montoya the No. 42 Saturday at New Hampshire.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Chevrolet has dominated this season with 13 wins in 16 races. But Carl Edwards gave Ford its second victory two weeks ago at Michigan and rookie Juan Pablo Montoya handed Dodge its first win of the year last Sunday on the road course at Sonoma.

That victory by the Colombian driver pulled Dodge within three points of Ford and second place in the manufacturers standings. Chevrolet leads the way with 135 points, while Ford has 85 and Dodge 82. NASCAR newcomer Toyota has yet to win a race and is a distant fourth in the points.

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