[NASCAR] Speed Addicts

Speed Addict’s GREEN/WHITE/CHECKER!
Once again, the fine folks at Speed Addict Central bring you a brand-spankin’-new edition of Green/White/Checker! In case you’ve missed it, Speed Addict’s Green/White/Checker! is basically our answer to the “What’s In/What was Five Minutes Ago/What’s Deader than Ashlee Simpson’s Career”. Every week, we’ll take three fascinating points from NASCAR and/or the figures in the news, and basically praise or trash them. And, before the two or so people that read this ask, Green stands for “What’s In”, White stands for “What’s on the Way Out”, and I think you can deduce the rest from there.

GREEN: Tony Stewart
There has been no one better since the end of June than Tony Stewart. Three wins in four races, while leading the most laps of anyone else on the circuit in that stretch. The Rushville Rocket absolutely destroyed the field at New Hampshire, which speaks volumes when you consider how many cars he passed to take the lead to begin with! Tony has always been a controversial figure in NASCAR, and has that bad boy reputation that has rubbed some people the wrong way. But whether you love him or you hate him, one thing is for sure: Stewart has reestablished himself as a prime contender for the Nextel Cup!

WHITE: Jeff Gordon
Unlike Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon has been sipping from the wrong punch bowl over the last… since Talladega, oddly enough. People can talk about his Wrigley Field appearance ’til the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is, Gordon has been the victim not only of circumstances, but bad luck as well. His Coca-Cola 600 bid was ruined by his teammate, Brian Vickers when Vickers sparked one of the twenty-something accidents at Charlotte in May. Brake failure cost him a Top Five finish at Loudon, while he lost a gear at Infineon (like Jimmie Johnson, oddly enough) that cost him another good finish at THAT track. It’s just been disaster after disaster for Gordon, who is looking for anything, anything at all to help turn his season around. Of course, he hopes that his reversal of fortunes happens at Pocono as opposed to Talladega. We’ve talked about Gordon so much over the last few months, along with the struggles of the other big names that we’ve mentioned a million times already. Gordon, though, is the last one to really turn it around, as Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. both have been fairly consistent over the last month. Time will tell if the #24 DuPont Chevrolet team can help Hendrick add another team to the Chase for the Cup.

CHECKER: Washington Nationals as NL East Champions
This would be the obligatory “non-racing reference in the G/W/C!” With the Atlanta Braves getting healthier by the day, it’s only a matter of time before the Bravos pass the Nationals for first place in the NL East. It’s funny, because a lot of baseball analysts (my homeboy Timmy Kurkjian among them) thought that this race would go down to the wire, with all five teams remaining tight. A month and a half later, and the division has just gone to pot in no time at all. For awhile there, Atlanta looked like it had be hit by the Plague, and there’s just no consistency to the Florida Marlins (or the Philadelphia Phillies, for that matter). The fact that Florida wants to deal A.J. Burnett is just mind-boggling, this despite the fact that Burnett is not the show-stopping anchor that Baltimore or the Chi Sox desire. New York is too green on the talent to compete, and that’s really a shame, because you have to wonder how much longer guys like Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez can keep going out there and pitching the way they have in the past. Well, Glavine sucks pretty badly now, but you know what I mean.

We’ll touch on this more in a little while, but for the time being, let’s assume that the NL East becomes a two-team race. While I don’t particularly like the Braves offense when compared to the Angels, Yankees or Red Sox, they still have better production from top to bottom than the Nationals do. Washington plays great at home, and Cordero is light-years better than anything Atlanta trots out as a closer these days (Dan Kolb, I’m looking at you). Nevertheless, in a seven game series, you can give me Hudson, Smoltz, and a healthy Mike Hampton over Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez. They’ve been a great story this year, but fans dreaming of a beltway series between the Orioles and Nats should probably go to Chicago and visit with the Cubs and White Sox fans there. I just don’t think it will happen.

Know Your NASCAR
This section is geared more towards international readers as opposed to American readers, who probably know a bit more about NASCAR racing by sheer osmosis. Each week, we’ll drive headlong into a facet of Stock Car Racing here in the United States, whether it be a bit about the sport itself, its personalities, or its history. And guys, you’re in for a real treat today, because we’re pulling out all the stops in a Know Your NASCAR first. When you get down to it, most diehard fans watch auto racing for the sport of it, to borrow a Robin Williams quote. What do the rest of NASCAR’s denizens watch for? What else? The crashes, of course! So, with driver safety in mind, we’re going to examine the art of the crash. We’ll take a look at what causes them, what prevents them, what keeps the drivers safe during them, and the different ways that cars tend to be destroyed on the track. And, as always, I may make reference to the “modern era” several times from here on. The Modern Era of NASCAR includes everything from 1972 to the present, just for reference.

Let’s dispel one common fact right now. Even with all the technological advances that have been made since the deaths of Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin, NASCAR is still a very dangerous sport. Temperatures inside the cars can easily top 100 degrees and beyond, burning the drivers legs and feet. Carbon Monoxide can break through into the cock pit, and some drivers have nearly passed out in their cars as a result. Fires can erupt, engulfing the cockpit and the driver sitting in it (as evidenced by the downright frightening video of Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Infineon last year). And even with so many safety features built into the cars, the crash is still the most dangerous position any human being can be put into on the race track. Nine times out of ten, everyone will walk away from an accident uninjured. But there’s always that one time when someone will take a hard lick on the driver side of the car, where there’s no impact resistance to protect the driver, and be helped away in a neck brace. The softer barriers that have been constructed at NASCAR venues across the country help protect the drivers immensely, but there is no guarantee that you will walk away from a track after the race is over. It’s a risk that every man and woman, in any form of auto racing assumes. Drivers have died before, and there will be drivers that perish in the future. We can joke about how we look forward to seeing “the Big One” at Daytona and Talladega, but truth be told, a crash is still a dangerous thing. If you only watch NASCAR to see a crash, then you should probably seek your entertainment elsewhere.

Having said that, crashes in NASCAR are unavoidable. It’s impossible to avoid them, because they come with the territory. It doesn’t matter if you’re at Bristol or Michigan, Watkins Glen or Indianapolis. There will always be some mitigating circumstances that will inevitably lead to a wreck. There are various ways that drivers manage to crash their cars, but a majority of them can be chalked up to inexperience on the part of young drivers that simply don’t know any better. Rookie mistakes are the leading cause of massive crashes at the Superspeedway venues, but an ill-advised bump draft attempt at Dover or Charlotte will do the job as well. NASCAR is very much a trial-and-error kind of endeavor, in that drivers will only get better with more and more track time. It takes a crash after driving too hard into the corner with a loose car for a rookie to learn how to avoid such mistakes in the future.

Of course, the older guys aren’t innocent of causing their share of wrecks, either. The older a driver gets, the slower his reaction time becomes to incidents. While a Jimmie Johnson or a Tony Stewart may be able to avoid cars crashing in Turn 4, an older driver like Mark Martin or Sterling Marlin may not be able to avoid the stalled cars in time, and may collect themselves in the accident as a result. Luck is the best friend, or worst enemy that a driver can have when he drives into a smoke cloud, unaware that he may or may not be driving headlong into the path of fifteen cars.

While rookie mistakes and poor driving instigate most wrecks, there are some accidents that result from failures on or in the individual car. Most of the time, engine failure will only claim the car whose engine failed in the first place. In other words, very rarely will you see an accident sparked by a guy that loses his engine. That’s not to say that engine failure can’t cause a wreck, because it can. When a car starts to put oil down, the track becomes no different than if rain were falling on it. With no tread on the tires, stock cars simply can’t get grip on a slick surface. Thus, when oil or other liquids get put down on the track, you may see some cars spinning out of nowhere. That’s why. Mostly, though, the only major problem that will spark a crash is tire failure. When you cut a tire down, the car becomes infinitely harder to control. A lot of times, a driver will be forced to pit. Sometimes, though, the tire may shred so completely, so quickly that the car takes a hard right turn into the outside retaining wall. Even if the car doesn’t swing wide, the tire will shred so thoroughly that the fender will tear up, rendering a car useless at a track that aerodynamics are important at (like Daytona).

Crashes at short tracks and road courses are fairly similar. There isn’t much room at tracks like Martinsville or Infineon, and so when too many cars bottleneck in the corners, you’ll likely see one car get into the back of another, spinning him out and sparking the wreck. The only major difference is that there are few cars who wreck on road courses that slam into walls. A majority of road course accidents will end up in the sand traps that are set up to keep the cars from careening into the walls. Sand traps, for the uninitiated among you, are big patches of… sand! They help slow the cars down when they run off track. Watkins Glen is a prime example; when you watch a race at the Glen, you’ll see two or three cars that require a tow truck to pull them out of the sand traps.

But “the Big One” is different from the rest. Cars running at places like Daytona and Talladega will often race three (and sometimes four abreast). When you have so many cars running so close together, all it takes is one minor accident to collect half of the field. Sometimes, you’ll see massive nineteen car pileups at Daytona and Talladega. Other times, you’ll see cars take the infamous “Daytona/Talladega” Roll, which is an expression for a car that flips over and “rolls” several times. One of the more famous visuals in recent memory includes Elliott Sadler, who took the Talladega roll as he crossed the finish line at the track in 2003. This leads us into the next part of our discussion; driver safety. Believe it or not, the spectacular crashes where a driver flips five times is much more safer than running straight into the wall at 180 MPH. This is because stock cars are designed to handle wrecks that put tremendous force on the cars. Case in point, the “roll cage” is strengthened in order to protect the driver inside the cockpit, while the rest of the car ends up looking like it got smashed by a tank. When a car gets turned around on the backstretch at a place like Daytona or Talladega, you may also notice panels that fly up from the roof on the car. These roof flaps are an aero-tool that help keep the car from getting airborne. Now, this particular device has cut down on the number of rolls that we’ve seen, but they by no means have eliminated them. So, in the last two years, NASCAR has toyed with the notion of keeping smaller fuel cells in the cars, which they hope will lead to more green flag pit stops and open up the field as a result. There hasn’t been conclusive that the smaller fuel cells have paid off as of today, though.

Another safety regulation implemented by NASCAR over the past few years is the incorporation of the freezing of the field at the drop of the caution flag. Though I’m sure we’ve touched on it before, the whole spiel began at Dover in the fall (or spring, fairly certain it was fall, though) of 2003. Dale Jarrett had spun coming out in Turn 4, and stalled as a result. The rest of the field, which was racing back to the caution flag for position, narrowly missed Jarrett’s car, in what could have been a disaster. Following that incident, NASCAR implemented the field-freeze rule to help protect drivers that are stranded on the racing surface. The lucky dog pass was also implemented to keep lapped down cars from blocking faster traffic (and putting everyone at risk of a crash in the process).

Crashes are a part of racing. They always have been, and they always will be. Of course, you will probably see a few crashes at Pocono this week, and you will see cars that look like the former property of the 81st Airborne circa World War II as well. Sheet metal will be ripped to shreds, hoods torn off, fenders that look worse than Michael Jackson’s face. Just remember, though; there is a difference between a spectacular wreck and a dangerous wreck. It’s the spectacular ones we crave, but it’s the dangerous ones that we should all pray never happen.

Well, truth be told, let’s hope that there are no more wrecks, period. Because there’s a good chance that my favorite drivers will always wind up in the middle of them.

Speed Addicts Special: Ranking the Best of the Best… and the Worst of the Worst
This has been a special feature that’s been under wraps for a while now, though I was figuring on displaying it sooner or later. With the NASCAR season halfway over (and our time together in 2005 as a result), I figured that it might be a nice way of capping off the first few months of torture for you guys by revisiting the best, and worst, of the racing world so far in 2005. We’ve got a little bit of everything; some NASCAR, some F1, some IndyCar Series, a tornado and a very, very special surprise hidden within. Go on, you know you guys want to find out what the #1 best thing about 2005 will be.

The Best
5. Night Racing at Darlington
Color me a softy, but the transition from the Labor Day Weekend race to the night race in May was… a lot less painful than it could have been. The fact that it was a fun race to watch is irrelevant, though. What is important, is that Darlington execs are confident enough in the fiscal worth of the track to move ahead with ticket sales for 2006. Of course, this doesn’t ensure that it wont go the way of Rockingham, but the longer we can hold onto Darlington, the better. It doesn’t hurt that it was a good race, though.

4. The NASCAR Hall of Fame
Say what you will about the mess of a situation regarding the location of this particular institution. I’ve been to the “Hall of Fame” situated at the racetrack in Darlington, and I can confidently say that this particular venture by NASCAR has been a long time coming. NASCAR is at the height of its popularity, and what better way to cap off a banner year with the rise of a Hall of Fame. The projected (six man) first class: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, and Bill France Sr.

3. Danica Patrick
I’m pretty much the epitome of the “real” southerner these days. Or at least a representation of the better half of us. Not all of us are the racist, male-chauvinistic deer hunters that some people would make you believe. For instance, I’m a really strong advocate for diversity in NASCAR, and if you missed the Tim Brown piece above, I’m pretty excited about guys like Brown and Magic Johnson helping break through the last remaining color barrier in American pro sports. Having said that, I’m also a big advocate of women breaking through into the ranks of auto racing. While she’s not the first woman to race at the Indianapolis 500, nor will she be the last, Danica Patrick took a giant step for women that wish to race. You know, some people probably only hold interest in her for her looks, and that’s fine. You can’t change that, and she is a very attractive woman. But guys, Danica has almost single-handedly helped boost the IndyCar Series back into the limelight, without having won a race yet! The crowd rises to its feet in support of her every time she leads a lap, and people who have never attended an IndyCar Series event before are starting to come out to see what the Danica Buzz is all about. If she never wins a race in her life, I don’t think it matters much. She may be all but forgotten this time next year, and it wont mean a thing, because Danica proved to the world that she could do it. And she did do it.

2. The 2005 Daytona 500
It’s the “Great American Race”. Stars flock to it, the networks pimp it for months. It is the biggest race in this industry, folks, and this year’s race did not disappoint. With a nail biter finish and racing action so good, the 2005 Daytona 500 will be remembered as one of the best races at the hallowed grounds of Daytona International Speedway for a long time to come. On the other hand, this year’s Daytona 500 may be the last of its breed. Next year, NASCAR is strongly leaning towards moving the start of the race to primetime (to attract more viewers and revenue). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since racing under the lights is all good and dandy. Still, this will mark a turning point in the sport, and may help launch NASCAR into the stratosphere if the primetime 500 works like NASCAR hopes it will.

1. Lance Armstrong
Ooh, curveball! Bet you didn’t see this one coming, did you? Well, it’s about time that Lance Armstrong got some coverage in this column, because bicycle racing is racing nonetheless (though I will admit, there’s no way in Hell I can top Patrick Nguyen’s representation of Lance’s competition). Lance Armstrong is a very special sports figure, for person reasons. Say what you will about cycling, but Lance Armstrong has got to be one of the greatest American sports heroes of all time when his career comes to a close. There’s just no getting around it. It hits home for me personally, because I’ve seen the effects of cancer up close and personal. Both of my grandfathers died of lung cancer, and the pain they endured… it’s something that sticks with you for a long, long time. My father is battling colon cancer right now, and when you’re able to see a guy like Lance Armstrong, who was given odds somewhere between zero and none to survive, not only battle such a horrible disease, but beat it and realize his dreams. It’s a great experience. Really and truly, I wouldn’t joke about it under the circumstances. It’s fun to listen to all the talk about Lance destroying the field every year at the Tour de France. But at the same time, I never forget what Armstrong has meant to me, personally. Lance Armstrong is my hero, and I’ll proudly admit that until the day I die. And, to anyone that has a problem with that, feel free to hit the back button on your browser now. I also send a hearty “f*ck you” to any jackass that thinks that Armstrong isn’t a real athlete, or a hero. Especially that tub of garbage who subbed in for Wilbon with Michael Smith two weeks ago on Pardon the Interruption. Screw you.

The Worst
5. Rockingham Out, California In
I think my stance has been made perfectly clear on this one. Suffice to say, let’s just move on and not mention how much I miss Rockingham, okay?

4. Superstars of NASCAR Struggle
This one isn’t really a bad occurrence per se, so much as it’s unfortunate for the fans of these drivers. Never before have so many major stars in NASCAR struggled so mightily to get out of their dismal slides. The list is long and distinguished: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Kasey Kahne, Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett. It’s odd how these guys have struggled, while guys like Biffle, Johnson, and Stewart are starting to make their mark on the sport, not to say that Stewart hasn’t already. With the bad, comes a ray of light I guess. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to see at least some of these guys be more competitive through the first half of the season.

3. The U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis
Dark were the days over Indianapolis following the Formula 1’s lone U.S. race in 2005, the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis last month. For the uninitiated among you, the situation boils down to a faulty tire being distributed to Michelin race teams leading up to the Grand Prix at Indy. After a series of lengthy arguments, fourteen cars eventually parked their cars before ever completing a lap under green, causing quite a publicity nightmare. Of course, the “domestic appliance” quote from Ecclestone only added fuel to an otherwise intense fire. It will probably go down as the worst auto racing moment in 2005, baring some sort of major occurrence down the line. For more, check out my Formula 1 Special in my profile.

2. Atlanta Motor Speedway Ravaged by F2 Twister
I’ve touched on this above, so I wont spend too much time on it, but it does bare mentioning that one of the jewels of NASCAR, Atlanta Motor Speedway, has been ravaged by a force greater than that of national expansion or the ravages of time. To see the destruction caused by the F2 Tornado on that night in Hampton, Georgia could send a chill down your side. Two lives were lost in that storm… and that’s when you realize how insignificant the race track means in the grand scheme of things.

1. Shane Hmiel Suspended for Drug Abuse
Again, we’ve already covered this above, but for the sake of completion, this gets the #1 rank for worst incident in 2005 to date for shedding light into drug abuse and NASCAR. Tobacco and Alcohol have long been associated with the sport (given its roots), but drug use has been a taboo subject for years now. Unfortunately, we now must come to the realization that drug use can and has infiltrated NASCAR, and however significant or insignificant the total amount of people that use drugs in the sport are, its still a damning revelation that’s just another black mark on the face of sports.

Well, with that out of the way, it’s time to deliver on a promise made before I left. It brings me great pleasure to bring to you the second installment of the NASCAR Quarterly Special, right here on Inside Pulse! I hope you find it useful, entertaining, or a fun way to kill a few minutes. Again, comment is always welcomed, good or bad. You know where to send it.

Inside Pulse’s NASCAR 2nd Quarter Special

I hope you’ve saved up your energy, because you’re still halfway from being through! Thus begins the second of four NASCAR Quarterly Specials here at the Pulse! We’ve got way too much NASCAR info crammed in here than is necessary, so you better grab you a nice, cold glass of sweet tea and a bag of Doritos, because you’re going to be here for awhile. In case you’re new to this slice of redneck heaven, or if you missed the first Quarter Special several weeks ago, this column is basically a review of the previous nine races on the NASCAR schedule, which is the second quarter of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Season. Thus, here at the Pulse, the NASCAR sector of the Sports group (ie me) decided to post a very special recap type column that will actually have some meaningful info up. With all that said, reach up their and pull those belts tight one more time! Because it’s “Boogity x3” time, in honor of our FOX friends who are no longer covering the races with us! For reference, this quarter spans the races from the Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington in May to the USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland.

Driver Profiles: Quarters 1 & 2
First up on our “Tour de Force” is a look at the men behind the wheel. Without the drivers, it’s unreasonably hard to really talk about NASCAR. The second quarter of the 2005 Nextel Cup Season has seen a host of pretenders get weeded out, while our midseason stretch has helped identify the real threats to the Chase, and those that were merely being strung along for the ride. To wit, we’ve got the remaining 37 drivers still mathematically eligible for the Chase covered, with some serious copy devoted to the Top 20 in points. Every statistical category, from money earned to the top fives and tens have been updated to model the cumulative stats for each driver so far in 2005. However, with the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr., sponsor information and crew chief changes resemble their state at the time of the first Quarter Special report (ie if a driver has changed sponsors, numbers, or crew chiefs since the first Quarter Special, it’s not covered herein).

01. Jimmie Johnson – $4,192,450
#45 Lowe’s Chevrolet

Points Standings: 1st (2,672 Points)
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Car Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 2
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 13

The one-time prodigy of Hendrick Motorsports has lived up to his billing as the next big gun in the Chevrolet legend. If anyone, anyone at all still retained some suspicion of Johnson’s ability to perform at the big level, then the first half of 2005 should have erased any and all doubts as to how good Jimmie really is. Under the watchful, if not overly critical eye of Chad Knaus, Johnson has taken a page out of the Matt Kenseth playbook and ran a perfectly consistent series of races since our last quarter special. Unlike some of the other major stars of NASCAR, Johnson’s main concern is focused squarely on his performance in the Chase for the Cup. With the strong possibility that Johnson may be the lone Hendrick car in this year’s Chase, the ability for Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, and Jeff Gordon to help Johnson could become the deciding factor in this year’s Nextel Cup quest.

02. Greg Biffle – $3,361,920
#16 National Guard/Charter Communications Ford

Points Standings: 2nd (2,595 Points / -77)
Crew Chief: Doug Richert
Car Owner: Roush Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 5
Top Fives: 7
Top Tens: 11

When we last checked on Hot Pants, he had logged two wins. With three more wins coming at Darlington, Dover and Michigan, Biffle has put himself in great shape heading into the Chase. Though his consistently doesn’t parallel that of Johnson’s, Biffle has been second to none when it comes to dominating at some of NASCAR’s most fabled tracks. With return visits to Dover and Michigan coming up, Greg figures to be in great shape for the Chase. What’s more, regardless of how Biffle’s season winds up, his reputation as a main-stay player in the Cup Series has been cemented now. Biffle, despite my earlier reservations, is the real deal.

03. Tony Stewart – $3,792,470
#20 The Home Depot Chevrolet

Points Standings: 3rd (2,587 Points / -85)
Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 3
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 11

The “Rushville Rocket” is rocketing his way into NASCAR’s postseason in a big, big way. After suffering through a rather lengthy winless drought that he suffered through until Infineon last month, Tony has won three of the last four races (Infineon, Daytona, New Hampshire) and also had a solid finish in Chicagoland. Even so, it hasn’t been that Tony has won these three races, but rather, how he has won them. At Infineon, Stewart just kept relentless pressure on then-race leader Ricky Rudd until he passed him with mere laps left. But at Daytona and then Loudon this past weekend, Stewart just obliterated any and everything in his path, cruising at both locales. With Pocono on tap, Stewart has also solidified his position in the race to the Chase, and will be a major factor when we return to Loudon in September.

04. Rusty Wallace – $2,700,170
#2 Miller Lite Dodge

Points Standings: 4th (2,442 Points / -230)
Crew Chief: Larry Carter
Car Owner: Penske Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 10

Rusty’s “Last Call” Tour may stink up the joint week in and week out, but Rusty has managed to keep up with the young guns, and for that, I give him major props. Ten top tens, along with good runs at Loudon and Chicagoland have really helped Wallace’s stock rise in the last two weeks. Even more, Rusty has managed to hang around at tracks like Daytona and Dover, where in past years he would have bowed out earlier. Though I may not like his (rumored) decision to return after leading everyone on to believe he was leaving, Rusty’s performance is worthy of a spot in the Chase.

05. Kurt Busch – $4,096,300
#97 Irwin Industrial Tools/Sharpie Ford

Points Standings: 5th (2,347 Points / -325)
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Car Owner: Roush Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 1
Top Fives: 6
Top Tens: 10

The defending 2004 Nextel Cup Champion wont get the same kind of props that Rusty did. I have only so much resolve, after all. Well, I’ll give him this; he’s managed to turn his lone win at Phoenix into a staple pin of what has otherwise been a very consistent year, mixed in with some hiccups here and there (see: 600, Coca-Cola). I may not like him, but… Busch is still a jerk. Nevertheless, Busch has all but ensured a run at successfully defending his 2004 Nextel Cup, and do something that hasn’t been done since the early 1990s in the process.

06. Ryan Newman – $3,159,990
#12 ALLTEL Dodge

Points Standings: 6th (2,347 Points / -325)
Crew Chief: Matt Borland
Car Owner: Penske Racing
Pole Awards: 5
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 9

The “Rocket Man” has once again made sure that come the day of Qualifying, every other man that rolls off of pit road knows that they’re battling for second place. A staggering five more poles have been added to his growing career totals. Of course, poles are nice and dandy, but it’s how you use the track position that defines your points position. For Newman, he has kept himself right in the thick of things with nine top tens and several top five finishes sprinkled in. Really, it’s the most you can hope for in a world full of Greg Biffle’s and Tony Stewart’s. With his (almost assured) entry into the Chase, Newman will have to work on his consistent runs within the Top Five to really make himself a contender. Until he learns to win more on Sundays, he has to be considered a very loud “pretender”, not a contender.

07. Mark Martin – $3,468,150
#6 Viagra Ford

Points Standings: 7th (2,320 Points / -352)
Crew Chief: Pat Tryson
Car Owner: Roush Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 9

Mark Martin, otherwise known as “Old Reliable”, has once again managed to keep himself in the “Race for the Chase” with a smattering of good runs, combined with smart driving. Aside from the Daytona crash that put a scare into most #6 fans, Pat Tryson and the rest of the Viagra Ford crew have put Mark in the position to be where he’s at in the points right now. And remember: last year, Martin wasn’t assured entry into the Chase until the very last race at Richmond. By Miami-Homestead, he was still in contention to win the Nextel Cup. So don’t count Martin out just because he’s behind Johnson and Stewart. You never know what Martin can pull off.

08. Jeremy Mayfield – $2,520,470
#19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge

Points Standings: 8th (2,285 Points / -387)
Crew Chief: Slugger Labbe
Car Owner: Evernham Motorsports
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 4

Mayfield, much like he did in 2004, has quietly snuck up on everyone, and has put himself in the cat-bird seat in regards to the Chase. With 11th Place Jamie McMurray buffered by Elliott Sadler and Dale Jarrett, Mayfield has to be feeling confident, especially considering the fact that Pocono and Richmond, two of his favorite tracks, are coming up in the final stretch to the Chase. Of course, Mayfield has to avoid accidents and internal failures at all costs, because one slip up at this stage could mean the difference between racing for the Cup and racing for that million dollar bonus. If Mayfield makes the Chase, though, he qualifies as one of the biggest surprises of 2005.

09. Elliott Sadler – $2,859,960
#38 M & M’s Ford

Points Standings: 9th (2,276 Points / -396)
Crew Chief: Todd Parrott
Car Owner: Robert Yates Racing
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 9

Elliott Sadler is not exactly a mystery on the Nextel Cup scene. He’s won a few races in his career, and can usually be counted on to finish in the Top 20 week in and week out, barring a crash that may remove him from contention. Sadler is very much like Matt Kenseth, in that his bread and butter lies in his consistency. Though his deficiencies are greater than some of his higher ranked counterparts, Sadler has become one of the most underrated drivers on the circuit. If given the proper attention, one would discover that Elliott Sadler is actually one of the underdog “dark horse” candidates to win the whole shebang. Yes, you heard right, Sadler can win the Nextel Cup Championship if he runs like I know he can. Though he has a tall mountain to climb, never count out Sadler. You’ll be sorry if you do, that I can promise you.

10. Dale Jarrett – $2,641,260
#88 UPS Ford

Points Standings: 10th (2,254 Points / -418)
Crew Chief: Mike Ford
Car Owner: Robert Yates Racing
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 5

D.J. may not have the fight left in him from his previous Championship run, but Jarrett knows how to get the job done when it matters most. It will take nothing short of a miracle for him to best the likes of Busch, Biffle and Johnson over the course of ten races, but old Dale will not go out with a whimper like Matt Kenseth did last year in the Chase. Assuming he makes it, Jarrett could be one of the more volatile factors in the Chase for the Cup. He may even change some of the negative opinions about him, to boot.

The following drivers are currently outside of the Top 10/-400 point window to enter the “Chase for the Nextel Cup”.

11. Jamie McMurray – $2,331,410
#42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge

Points Standings: 11th (2,233 Points / -439)
Crew Chief: Donnie Wingo
Car Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7

Jamie McMurray is in the midst of a mini-controversy surrounding his current affiliation with Chip Ganassi and his would-be new boss, Jack Roush. Not to mention a potential conflict between McMurray and Roush mainstay Kenseth, it’s been a busy week for the young driver. With all this in mind, McMurray is probably in the worst position of all the major names on the outside of the Chase looking in. Both Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will likely pass him in the standings, for the simple fact that McMurray is not as consistent in his runs. Far too often, some sort of incident like the one at Loudon have knocked him out of contention early. The same thing happened at the Coke 600 back in May, too. If McMurray wants to make a move, he has to step up, let bygones be bygones, and focus on the mission ahead. Drifting on past grudges will only get your ticket punched to the “everyone else” group come Loudon in September.

12. Carl Edwards – $2,372,190
#99 Scotts/Ortho Ford

Points Standings: 12th (2,200 Points / -472)
Crew Chief: Bob Osborne
Car Owner: Roush Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 2
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7

Jack Roush has to be seeing the dollar signs after watching his rookie phenom, Carl Edwards taking two checkered flags at Atlanta and Pocono. Not only that, the young Edwards has finished in the Top 10 seven times, which is tremendous for a rookie. With that said, Edwards has lost a lot of his momentum from Pocono, thanks in part to a series of bad finishes following his second win. Much like Kasey Kahne from a year ago, Edwards will most likely find himself fighting an uphill battle to make the Chase all the way to the checkered flag at Richmond. And like Kahne, I don’t think that Carl will be able to hold off the likes of Earnhardt Jr. or Gordon for long. Despite this, Carl has had a fine season, and has a bright, bright future ahead of him in the Nextel Cup.

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – $3,532,150
#8 Budweiser Chevrolet

Points Standings: 13th (2,195 Points / -477)
Crew Chief: Steve Hmiel
Car Owner: Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 1
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 8

This has been a season that most Junior fans would like to forget. The 2005 Nextel Cup Campaign has been a disastrous one for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tire failures, crashes, poor qualifying runs, and letdown after letdown have landed the media stalwart far out of the 400-point cutoff line in the overall points standings. Of all the major stars in NASCAR, Junior’s struggles have been the most prolific due to his popularity and the standards that he’s set for himself. Though he seems to have turned the corner with three good runs in a row, Junior will have to carry this wave of momentum straight through to Richmond, because the drivers ahead of him are too good to just lay down for him. Like Gordon, Junior is in a really tight position, and cannot afford to slip up. If he does, it will be a very long winter for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

14. Kevin Harvick – $2,782,120
#29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet

Points Standings: 14th (2,149 Points / -523)
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier
Car Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 1
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 5

As I type this, Harvick has earned himself just a single Cup victory in 2005 (Bristol). Of course, he hasn’t won much over the last two years, this after a promising start to his Winston/Nextel Cup Career. The “Sophomore Slump” hit Harvick hard, and he hasn’t really recovered from it to this day. His qualifying efforts on the season have given him an average starting position of 18th, while he averages a 17th place finish on the season. Despite a win at Bristol this past April, he’s managed only five other Top 10 efforts all year, with disheartening performances at Michigan and both Daytona races. Harvick can’t seem to stay out of some sort of feud long enough to focus on winning, which is too bad. Harvick could be one of the best in the game. Instead, he seems content on mediocrity.

15. Jeff Gordon – $4,410,880
#24 Du Pont Chevrolet

Points Standings: 15th (2,134 Points / -538)
Crew Chief: Robbie Loomis
Car Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Pole Awards: 2
Wins: 3
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7

Gordo actually finished well enough at Daytona to get within 400 points of the leaders in the points standings, but thanks in part to piss-poor finishes at Chicagoland and Loudon, Gordon’s slide has turned into a depression. Gordon has struggled over the past few weeks, this despite a strong start with a Daytona 500 win. Luckily for the Du Pont Chevrolet representative, he’s about to patron a series of tracks that have been very kind to him in the past. Gordon has won at Bristol, Indianapolis, and Watkins Glen, and has run consistently well at places like California and Michigan. If Gordon is to rebound from his skid, the upcoming schedule is as good a start as any. But rest assured, Gordon’s days are numbered if he doesn’t step up soon.

16. Matt Kenseth – $2,833,540
#17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford

Points Standings: 16th (2,104 Points / -568)
Crew Chief: Robbie Reiser
Car Owner: Roush Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 6

Some people may think that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having the most disappointing season of all in 2005. I beg to differ, because as popular as Earnhardt Jr. is, he still hasn’t won the Winston/Nextel Cup yet. Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford has. The 2003 Winston Cup Champion surprised a lot of people by not faring any better than he did in the inaugural Chase for the Cup last year after… well, mucking up at Dover by running into the tire barrier entering pit road. Some people, myself included, tend to argue that Kenseth hasn’t been the same since his Dover troubles, and the statistics tend to agree. In 2005, Kenseth has only logged four top ten finishes, with his best finish coming at Michigan, where he finished fourth. This stands out more for Kenseth than it does for Junior for one specific reason: Junior resembles a Jimmie Johnson type racer, who is a contender to win every time out it seems, whereas Kenseth is the model of consistency. Kenseth has been improving for several weeks now (beginning at Michigan in June), but two top fives and six top tens will not cut it. He has to step it up in a big, big way if he has any aspirations of meaningful competition this Fall.

17. Jeff Burton – $2,329,700
#31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet

Points Standings: 17th (2,085 Points / -587)
Crew Chief: Kevin Hamlin
Car Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 2

Jeff Burton has become a case study in good luck, a few good runs and a really strange Nextel Cup Season. Despite only logging two top tens so far in 2005, Burton has managed to run in the Top 20 just about every week, and has become one of the feel-good stories in the 2005 Season as a result. With his sponsorship issues behind him for now, Burton will look to use the remainder of the season as a test ground for him to try and regain his form of old. While any Chase aspirations are far-fetched at this point, Burton can still be a contender in a race before season’s end.

18. Joe Nemechek – $2,355,560
#01 U.S. Army Chevrolet

Points Standings: 18th (2,067 Points / -605)
Crew Chief: Ryan Pemberton
Car Owner: MB2 Motorsports
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 4

Joe Nemechek is a lot like Jeff Burton. Most people assumed his best days were behind him, and yet Joe has seen something of a career resurgence over the last two and a half years. With a win at Kansas last year, and four top tens this year, Nemechek is doing a lot to solidify himself as a driver worthy of racing in the Nextel Cup. Joe is a good old boy, a throwback to a dying breed in the Nextel Cup scene these days. Like Burton, his chances of making the Chase are slim to none, but I for one wish nothing but the best for Joe and Ryan Pemberton over the rest of 2005.

19. Kyle Busch – $2,279,020
#5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet

Points Standings: 19th (2,046 Points / -626)
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Car Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Pole Awards: 1 (California)
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7

Kyle Busch has long been a contender in the Busch Series, but with his most recent race at Loudon, Kyle has shown that he has what it takes to race in the Cup Series. Unlike his Hendrick teammate Vickers, Kyle has shown patience, good driving, and an ability to start up front vis-à-vis his pole award from California last February. With the completion of the second quarter, Busch has amassed some impressive rookie numbers: five top fives, seven top tens, and a tremendous run last week at Loudon to secure his name amongst the promising rookie class of 2005.

20. Michael Waltrip – $2,572,110
#15 NAPA Chevrolet

Points Standings: 20th (2,037 Points / -635)
Crew Chief: Tony Eury Jr.
Car Owner: Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 7

Of all the drivers that you try to scout when doing something like this, a guy like Michael Waltrip is the most frustrating to try and predict. Mikey is a restrictor plate racer; there’s just no getting around it. He has been for four years now, and he always will be. Aside from Charlotte, Waltrip has not been particularly strong at any one track over his career, which is usually what eliminates him from contention when push comes to shove. This was really brought to light last year, where DEI’s junk cars were pushed onto the NAPA Chevrolet team. His performance deteriorated as a result, though nine top-ten finishes were highlights. This year, though, Waltrip has returned to form with seven Top 10 finishes, not to mention a second place effort at Phoenix. Unfortunately, a lot has gone wrong for Michael in the interim. He is racing with the knowledge that he’s losing his ride after 2005, and coupled with the recent down swing that he’s experienced, Waltrip is all but eliminated from Chase contention. Hopefully, he can rebound and log some Top Fives to salvage the year.

21. Kasey Kahne – $2,763,640
#9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge

Points Standings: 21st (1,955 Points / -717)
Crew Chief: Tommy Baldwin Jr.
Car Owner: Evernham Motorsports
Pole Awards: 2
Wins: 1
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 5

22. Brian Vickers – $2,241,550
#25 GMAC/ditech.com Chevrolet

Points Standings: 22nd (1,916 Points / -756)
Crew Chief: Lance McGrew
Car Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Pole Awards: 1
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 5

23. Bobby Labonte – $2,643,760
#18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet

Points Standings: 23rd (1,854 Points / -818)
Crew Chief: Steve Addington
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 4

24. Ricky Rudd – $2,384,140
#21 Motorcraft Genuine Parts Ford

Points Standings: 24th (1,774 Points / -898)
Crew Chief: Michael “Fatback” McSwain
Car Owner: Wood Brothers Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 4

25. Sterling Marlin – $2,311,670
#40 Coors Light Dodge

Points Standings: 25th (1,754 Points / -918)
Crew Chief: Steve Boyer
Car Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 3

26. Scott Riggs – $2,439,530
#10 Valvoline Chevrolet

Points Standings: 26th (1,748 Points / -924)
Crew Chief: Doug Randolph
Car Owner: MBV Motorsports
Pole Awards: 1 (Martinsville)
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 3

27. Casey Mears – $2,218,270
#41 Target Dodge

Points Standings: 27th (1,747 Points / -925)
Crew Chief: Jimmy Elledge
Car Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 3

28. Ken Schrader – $1,743,660
#49 Schwan’s Home Service Dodge

Points Standings: 28th (1,729 Points / -943)
Crew Chief: David Hyder
Car Owner: BAM Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 3

29. Dave Blaney – $1,828,230
#07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet

Points Standings: 29th (1,700 Points / -972)
Crew Chief: Philippe Lopez
Car Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1

30. Kyle Petty – $1,881,490
#45 Georgia-Pacific/Brawny Dodge

Points Standings: 30th (1,675 Points / -997)
Crew Chief: Paul Andrews
Car Owner: Petty Enterprises
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1

31. Mike Bliss – $1,706,450
#0 NetZero/Best Buy Chevrolet

Points Standings: 31st (1,657 Points / -1015)
Crew Chief: Bob Barker
Car Owner: Haas CNC Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0

32. Jeff Green – $2,207,840
#43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge

Points Standings: 32nd (1,636 Points / -1036)
Crew Chief: Greg Steadman
Car Owner: Petty Enterprises
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0

33. Travis Kvapil – $1,826,490
#77 Kodak/Jasper Engines Dodge

Points Standings: 33rd (1,623 Points / -1049)
Crew Chief: Shane Wilson
Car Owner: Penske/Jasper Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1

34. Scott Wimmer – $1,989,940
#22 Caterpillar Dodge

Points Standings: 34th (1,539 Points / -1133)
Crew Chief: Derrick Finley
Car Owner: Bill Davis Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0

35. Mike Wallace – $1,588,400
#4 Lucas Oil Products Chevrolet

Points Standings: 35th (1,440 Points / -1232)
Crew Chief: Chris Carrier
Car Owner: Morgan-McClure Motorsports
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1

36. Jason Leffler – $1,466,120
#11 FedEx Express Chevrolet

Points Standings: 36th (1,383 Points / -1289)
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0

37. Bobby Hamilton Jr. – $1,615,920
#32 Tide Chevrolet

Points Standings: 37th (1,201 Points / -1471)
Crew Chief: Harold Holly
Car Owner: PPI Motorsports
Pole Awards: 0
Wins: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0

Drivers Robby Gordon, Kevin Lepage, Terry Labonte, Hermie Sadler, Johnny Sauter, Boris Said, Bill Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Mike Garvey, Stanton Barrett, John Andretti, Jimmy Spencer, Mike Skinner, Carl Long, Morgan Shepherd, Kerry Earnhardt, Ron Fellows, Brian Simo, Randy LaJoie, David Stremme, Stuart Kirby, Kenny Wallace, Clint Bowyer, Chris Cook, Shane Hmiel, Scott Pruett, Jeff Fuller, Eric McClure, P.J. Jones, Tony Raines, Ted Christopher, Greg Sacks, and Tom Hubert (Positions 38th – 70th in Points, Respectively) have been mathematically eliminated from the “Chase for the Nextel Cup”.