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As the chase begins, only 4 or 5 look to have a great shot at it, so the others better make something happen fast

By Mike Mulhern


So maybe you think NASCAR racing and this sport's marketeers are too over-the-top?

Exaggerated pyrotechnics?

Well, better wake up Leroy, because he ain't seen nothing like this.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Chase VII is about to begin.

Yeah, yeah, all that pre-Richmond race hype was just that – hype. Denny Hamlin made that a snoozer, until teammate Kyle Busch made a late charge.

But put these playoffs into context: This better be a September to remember....

The NFL is off and running, and NASCAR men need to come up with some splash and pizzazz and fireworks right quick.

Will Sunday's 'Lobster 300' – the first race of the 10-race playoffs that run from now till Thanksgiving – provide some of that.

NASCAR can't afford to have any more ho-hum Sundays from here on out.

Cue Kyle Busch.

Imagine what it could do for this sport if bad boy Kyle, perhaps the most talented driver out there, could win this championship....

He certainly has incentive – not in Mr. Four-time, Jimmie Johnson, but rather in his own teammate, Hamlin.

However this place holds some bittersweet memories for Busch: like that dismal run in the fall of 2008 that doomed his NASCAR championship bid almost before it even began, during a year where he was the hot stuff during the regular season – and then a big flop in the title chase.

And last season Busch came here out of Richmond after failing even to make the playoff cut.
Now it's up to crew chief Dave Rogers to make this chase thing happen for him.

Yes, Busch won here in 2006....ran a so-so 11th in this summer's stop, after a seventh and fifth last year. But it's that 34th in the 2008 chase that is the one everyone still remembers. That one, and the disastrous week after, at Dover, and the disastrous week after that, at Kansas City.

Busch was toast.

And he didn't let it roll off his shoulders.

Enter Dave Rogers, the veteran Joe Gibbs' engineer (with years as one of Greg Zipadelli's right-hand men with Tony Stewart).

Rogers, a Clarkson College grad (find that place on Google Maps, somewhere under the polar ice cap), has shown remarkable toughness since taking the helm of Busch's team. It takes a tough guy to deal with Busch, to put it mildly. And Rogers, low-keyed but a pit bull on the box, has done the job.

But Busch himself hired Rogers to lead him to the championship...much as Richard Childress hired Larry McReynolds to help the late Dale Earnhardt get over the hump in February at Daytona.

Well, now it's crunch time.

This season Busch and teammate Hamlin are two of the four men who appear head-and-shoulders above the rest of their title rivals as the 10-race sprint to the Homestead finale begins, here at the flat one-mile Bob Bahre first put on the NASCAR tour in the early 1990s. Johnson, going for his fifth straight title, and Kevin Harvick, the tour's regular season champ, are the others...with Carl Edwards their closest challenger at the moment, and with Jeff Burton hoping to get on a roll.

However Busch and Hamlin are both worried about these first few playoff races, because that's where their previous title hopes hit the rocks.

The high-strung Busch – who could certainly set a new, edgier tone for this sport if he were to win the championship – and Hamlin have had their moment this season, like at Charlotte. In fact, Busch has had more than a few angry moments in his career.

While some might wonder if that intense internal rivalry might not take something off both men's title game, others see that battle as spurring both men on.

Johnson, who won here in June, may be Sunday's favorite in the 300, but he's been up and down all season, perhaps vulnerable.

In fact all 12 men in the chase have their weaknesses, though Harvick appears to have a decided edge in both consistency and big-game play.

Hamlin, winner here in 2007 (with six top-10s in nine runs), finished second in last season's chase opener.

But Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford concede their title runs (and they've made the playoff cut five straight years now) have flopped.

Can they turn it around this season? Well, they've won six tour events, more than even Johnson, and yet they've shown considerable inconsistency....like that blown engine at Atlanta two weeks ago after starting from the pole.

And the Gibbs guys, after starting the season so hot (at one time with seven wins in 10 weeks), have been all-but cold much of the summer.

If Busch is Mr. Hot out on the track, Hamlin tries to be Mr. Cool.

Hamlin certainly understands he's got to prove himself in this chase, after all those flops.

"The last five races of the chase (Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead) always seem to be really good for us," Hamlin says.

"The problem is we race ourselves right out of it the first two or three.

"So for me it's about damage control at the beginning...and if we are within shouting distance with five to go, I'm pretty confident we'll have a good shot at it.

"I feel this year I'm as clear as I've ever been. And we're winning at tracks we don't usually win at.

"A lot of people bash this team about 'Can't finish this,' or 'Can't finish that.' But we got the most wins, and hopefully that will carry us through the chase."

After a ragged summer – from his win at Michigan in mid-June through Labor Day weekend at Atlanta – Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford says "We needed to get some momentum going into the chase.

"We felt we stumbled a little, and wanted to get aggressive. We went to Atlanta and sat on the pole, and had some momentum, a turnaround...and had an engine failure in the race.

"We knew coming to Richmond, we could rebound.

"So it's been up-and-down, but we gained some momentum moving into the chase.

"We have never been the points leader...so we're still going to stay aggressive."

With an asterisk:

"To win this championship we have to get through these first three first," Ford frets.

"Loudon -- we struggled; the first race was utterly miserable for us. We don't know where we missed it.

"Dover has been a thorn in our side.

"And then Kansas -- I think our 1-1/2-mile is good.

"But we have got to keep our stuff together. That's what has taken us south the last couple of years.

"If we can get through those first 2 to 3 races, keep the cars together and not make mistakes, then I think we can out‑compete anyone."

Hamlin agrees: "For us, it's the first three races. Those are the ones we've got to get around.

"If we're within 50 to 100 points after we leave those, then we've got a great shot. We always make a heck of a run at the end of the chase, no matter where we're at in points.

"So for me it's about damage control. And if we can win one or two of those first five, that's going to be a big boost.

"Never through the course of my career have I ever felt that anywhere I show up I could win....until this year.

"So at this point now, the confidence level is pretty high."

Hamlin was the preseason title favorite.

But his slow start and then ragged summer, well, like teammate Busch says, it's not easy to pick any one of the 12 and say he's the man to beat.

"We all want to identify somebody, but you can't," Busch insists. "Look at Jeff Burton, for instance. He was really fast at Dover (next week's tour stop), and gave me a run for my money, along with Jimmie, before Jimmie had his pit road issues.

"Clint Bowyer runs fast at Martinsville; he runs fast at Kansas.

"I can pick about three tracks every driver is really, really good at.

"Denny has really picked up the 1-1/2-mile program this year -- a lot better than I have.

"But I've picked up the short-track program."

Busch certainly showed that Saturday night at Richmond, nipping at Hamlin's rear bumper down the stretch and making him sweat. And remember Busch's three-sweep at Bristol...

Busch, unlike Hamlin, might try to open the chase with a kick.

Certainly that appears to be the way Johnson wants to start things out....given his angry attitude at those lately doubting his team's ability to make it five straight.

"If you run well the first five races, and then you go to Talladega and struggle, you'll at least have a cushion built up," Busch says.

"I feel it's really important to come out of the gate strong. Like, I always feel the beginning the year is the most important, the first 10 or 12 races, to get your footing and get set solidly in the point-standings."

Predict the playoffs at your peril. Another home run derby? Or will caution – and keeping mistakes to a minimum – be the watchword?

Here's predicting that Johnson will try to kick off the chase with a blitz.

And here's predicting Busch will try to match him blast for blast.

And if those other guys play it too cautiously, they may be far behind before we get too deep in the playoffs.

Busch's take:

While Hamlin and Ford may like the way things are shaping up for the Kansas 400, Busch is a little more concerned: "I look at Kansas as a struggle point.

"Talladega? Nobody really knows.

"At Martinsville I ran really well this spring and had a shot to finish second. Unfortunately I got wrecked.

"Loudon I'm looking forward to; we ran third in the spring.

"Dover we won.

"Charlotte's been a pretty good track for me. California has been good for us. Homestead was good for us last year."

But of course there's more to winning the championship that simply running well. There are a lot of emotions to deal with, that 'championship pain in the gut every week,' as Johnson says.

Busch, who is an emotional sort of guy anyway, figures these next 10 weeks will be filled "anxiety, frustration, nervousness, excitement."

And he's not looking for 10 error-free races by anyone of the 12.

"But in those races where you do have an error, it's how well you can bounce back," Busch says.

The magic number? The average finish it will take to win the title?

Johnson set that mark a couple years ago, with an amazing 5.0.

This time Busch says no one will get close to that, or even close to Johnson's 6.4 winning average last fall.

And Busch doesn't put much stock in NASCAR's 'seedings,' based on 10-point bonuses for regular season wins. Those 10 points are less than the difference between a win here Sunday and a second-place run, for example.

What could well be a factor is the fact that five of the 12 title challengers are still winless this year.

And some of these guys have gone a long, long time since the last tour win. Jeff Gordon, for example, hasn't won since April a year ago.

Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Burton too.

Will a man without a tour win capture this championship?

Not likely.

So look for those still winless to make some bold moves early on....for better or worse.

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