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These 12 title chasers better watch out -- Kyle Busch is now all the more dangerous

  It's looking like this is the season Jeff Gordon (L) finally gets that fifth NASCAR championship....and when it's time to film The Jeff Gordon Story, well, Tom Cruise looks like a good candidate....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   So how to pick 'em in the NASCAR title chase?
   First, Tony Stewart has been so strong and so consistent all season…that he's due for a slip or two. Remember Kyle Busch last year.
   Second, Jimmie Johnson is going for a record-breaking fourth straight championship, and he could easily have won every title since he joined the tour. But that just means the odds should finally start turning against him. Plus, he's had a few bobbles lately, like running out of gas at Michigan.
   Third, Kyle Busch didn't make the cut. That of course takes him out of the running for the title, but it also makes him even more dangerous on the track, because he has nothing to lose. And he's a wild man out there anyway.
   Mark Martin? He's easily the sentimental pick, and he's got more wins this year than in the last several, and he's been remarkably consistent, and he and crew chief Alan Gustafson are certainly clicking. And Martin has been in the thick of a number of championship battles over his career, though he's still looking for his first Cup title.
   Juan Pablo Montoya – now this would be a great shot in the arm for the sport if the ex-Formula One star could pull the surprise. But considering he is winless and hasn't logged that many top fives, he's a long shot.
    Denny Hamlin: dominant at Richmond, but erratic over the season, and never really a factor in previous chases. He'll have to show early on what he can do.
    Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, car owner Jack Roush's two entries (with Matt Kenseth having a very ragged time at Richmond and falling out of the playoffs), are both winless so far this season, and Roush's entire cast hasn't been on the mark. Biffle opened last season's chase with wins at Loudon and Dover, so how well he does here could be key to what the Roush guys have going for them this fall. Edwards seems to have shrugged off that broken foot; he won the Nationwide race at Richmond. Still, it's quite curious that the man who won nine times last season hasn't won even once yet this season. It would appear the Roush men got off-track in engineering somewhere this season (after Kenseth's wins at Daytona and California); and it may be too late to get it all back.
   Kasey Kahne? He's been hot, but now with all the psychological baggage of that looming merger with Ford's Doug Yates and the switch from Dodge and the pending loss of Kahne's entire engine department and the sudden loss of competition director Mark McArdle (at the team since 2003), well, Kahne has to be a big question mark.
   Kurt Busch, the other Dodge guy in the chase: he's worried about the looming loss of crew chief Pat Tryson at the end of the season (jumping from Roger Penske's operation to Michael Waltrip's Toyota team, to work with Martin Truex Jr.). That means Busch will need a new crew chief next season, and how all that chemistry works out, well, it can't be a plus.
   Ryan Newman? He's been remarkably successful as Stewart's teammate, but he is still winless, and it remains to be seen if he and crew chief Tony Gibson (one of the sport's more underrated crew chiefs) can step up their game to championship potential.
   Brian Vickers? Well, since running 35th here in June, he's logged nine straight top-12 finishes and gained more points than anyone else in the chase. He could be the darkhorse of the chase.


  Place your bets. Here are the 12 men running for the Sprint Cup championship over the next 10 weeks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

….Which brings us to Jeff Gordon, And, to me, he looks like the man to beat in this year's title chase. That breakthrough win at Texas back in the spring may have been the key.

   Gordon has been here before (though he hasn't won a title since 2001), and he has his head on straight.
   And this is a very good track for him. He's got three wins and 16 top-10s in his time on the tour, plus three poles, and led over 1200 laps. His average finish here is 11.3.
   In June he started on the front row and finished second.
   Crew chief Steve Letarte says losing that Loudon race "was probably the biggest heartbreak of the year.
"Everybody did exactly what they needed to do," Letarte said. "Jeff drove a fabulous race, the pit crew was rock-solid, the early crew prepared a great car -- the shop gave us a great car to take there.
    "We did everything we should have done to win the race…and we just got beat by a team that was forced into a strategy that paid off.
     "I'm not going to call it luck; I don't believe in luck. I think everyone has the same opportunity.
    "They just played a pretty creative strategy, and the rain came about 20 laps from the end, and it made those guys the winners.
     "So this time we have a chip on our shoulder: to prove it wasn't a fluke.
     "It's a driver's track -- It's multi-grooved, so you can run the apron, the middle groove….and there's a third groove higher."
     Since being promoted to the role of running Gordon's team, Letarte has been through the fire. And Gordon says he just likes Letarte's style:
   "Steve and I have always had a great relationship," Gordon says of the man who started out sweeping floors and has steadily moved up the ladder. "He was young when he came on board…and he's always a fun-loving, good guy. And I've always liked his way of thinking -- the theories he has, the direction he was thinking."
    And Letarte's thinking on how to win this 10-race playoff chase?
    "The cat's out of the bag: It used to be everybody thought a seventh- or eighth-place (average) finish was going to get it done, but I think during 2007-2008 the average finish has been 5.0 or better," Letarte says.
    "The big question mark this year is the double-file restarts -- and we'll see how that's going to affect how everybody is going to race the chase: No one is out of the races any more, no one finishes a lap down. Between the 'wave-bys' and the 'lucky dog,' everyone's on the lead lap or multiple laps down."
    Which puts more pressure on the crew chief: "In years past if there were 10 or 15 cars on the lead lap at Loudon, you could be very aggressive with your pit call and the worst that would happen is you would finish 10th," Letarte says.
    "If you mess up a pit call now at Loudon you will finish 35th…because there will be 30 to 35 cars on the lead lap. At all these races.
    "And that makes standing on the pit box much more stressful."


  After a Thursday media whirl through New York City Mark Martin, the new tour leader, and the gang will be back in action Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in the first race of the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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