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Drew Bonifant

Sprint Cup Notebook: In Chase, Gordon shaping up as best of the rest

  • Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on

    Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on

  • Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on

    Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on

  • Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on
  • Matt Kenseth, front, competes against Jeff Gordon, back, during a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, on

Matt Kenseth has been dominant, Jimmie Johnson has been spectacular and Kyle Busch has been a hair behind them each time.

Ask anyone, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup is now a three-horse derby. Either Joe Gibbs will win his first title since 2005 when Kenseth or Busch finishes the year on top, or Johnson will prove his status as NASCAR’s best driver merely went on hiatus, rather than in decline, when he captures his sixth title in eight years.

With a 27-point bulge between third and fourth, the numbers certainly suggest the popular opinion is the correct one. But there has to be a chance for a shocker, with 10 more drivers at least in mathematical contention and the 2.5-mile wild card in Talladega Superspeedway still among the seven venues left to visit. Someone in the second pack has to have a better-than-anyone-else chance of mounting a rally and re-entering the championship picture. The question is who.

The favorite among the longshots may be the future Hall of Famer: Jeff Gordon.

Gordon’s the closest of the second-tier competitors (tied with Kevin Harvick in fourth), but his advantage goes beyond the points. The Hendrick mainstay, who’s been hampered by bad luck and his own decline over the past few years, has been rejuvenated as the racing’s gotten more competitive. He built his Chase case with five top-10s in his last seven races, and one in each of the final three, and his steady hand has carried over into the postseason, as a 15th-place effort at Loudon is the lone blemish saddled in between sixth- and fourth-place finishes.

It’ll take far more than consistency to make up room, however. Whoever makes a move out of the Chase pack and into the top level will need to win races, and if anyone outside the top three can get that hot, Gordon’s the bet. His average finish of 11.1 at Kansas, where the racing resumes today, is third-best among Chase participants, and he’s got 11 combined wins at Charlotte and Talladega, the next two venues. Gordon’s been good there, but he’s been great at Martinsville, the sixth Chase location, where he’s won seven times (behind only Johnson’s eight) and finished an average of seventh.

It’s a money stretch for Gordon, and he knows it.

“Kansas will be the test,” he said, according to ESPN. “If we run well there and then hit Charlotte, Martinsville, places like that, who knows?”

Gordon’s six wins at Talladega are the most of any Chase driver, and his advantage at the superspeedway is two-fold. His skill there gives him a chance to make up ground on other drivers, and the nature of the track provides a chance for the field to come back to him. The pack racing at Talladega is conducive to major wrecks, which – if one were to involve Kenseth, Johnson or Busch – could ruin the three-man Chase narrative and jumble the standings back up. If Gordon comes out of Alabama in the title picture, he’ll have a sweet spot in Martinsville upon which to build up his roll.

A blistering stretch and a break or two could put Gordon back in the hunt. It’s happened before, and to one of the drivers Gordon’s chasing. When Johnson was on his way to winning his first Chase back in 2006, he entered the postseason’s fourth race all the way back in eighth place. Climbing up the ladder is hard, but not impossible. Gordon would only need the old magic for a few races – and there’s no question, if he wants to get into the derby, he’s going to need it.

Chase, schmase

There was plenty of jostling around in the standings after the final regular-season race at Richmond, as competition fiascoes resulted in Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman (who were initially out) getting into the Chase, and Martin Truex Jr. (who was initially in) getting booted out.

Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray’s status never changed. He was out before the shuffling started and out after – stuck in 14th, one position out of the playoffs.

Given the way he’s driving, however, you would think his playoff spot was never in question.

Three races in, McMurray’s enjoyed a fall better than some of the drivers who actually have a title chance. He’s finished fifth and 11th in his last two races, coming in as the highest-finishing non-Chaser both times, and his performance would have him tied with Clint Bowyer for eighth if he had made the postseason cut-off.

Any momentum for the No. 1 team would be welcome with the changes Earnhardt-Ganassi will be undergoing this offseason. Juan Pablo Montoya is leaving the No. 42 and rookie Kyle Larson is taking over, so heading into 2014 as a strong Chase possibility would be good for McMurray as he assumes the role as his team’s de facto top driver and experienced presence.

Three up

∎ Jimmie Johnson: Kenseth won’t run away with this one. The five-time champion is digging in his heels and not letting a sixth one go without a fight.

∎ Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior raced like he knew what was at stake at Dover. He captured the pole and ran his tail off, falling just short of Johnson, who simply owns Dover. Earnhardt’s Chase chances are remote, but it’s not due to lack of effort last weekend.

∎ Greg Biffle: Followed a third-place finish at Loudon by going from 19th to ninth at Dover. He’s also really good at Kansas, where he’s won twice.

∎ Bonus – Rick Hendrick: Getting three of the top four spots (Jeff Gordon was fourth at Dover) gets the powerhouse owner some extra praise.

Three down

∎ Kasey Kahne: He wasn’t awful at Dover, but he needed much more than his 13th-place showing. His title hopes ended almost as soon as they began.

∎ Carl Edwards: Finishing 35th at Dover, where he had the best track record of any driver in terms of average finish, was a complete shocker.

∎ Kurt Busch: From fourth in Chicago to 13th at Loudon to 21st at Dover … things are trending in the wrong way for the 2004 champion.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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