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Look Out Ahead

Jimmie Johnson is eyeing a historic four-peat, but he faces a field of former champs and proven race winners (including one very hungry, very fast old man). Here are five checkpoints to watch for as the most competitive Chase yet unfolds

Week 1 | NewHampshire, Sept. 20

The first step'sa doozy

This Sunday'sopener at Loudon can set the tone—and determine strategy—for the nine racesthat follow. Because a win can put a driver in position to contend for the restof the season, New Hampshire has recently become a showcase for dark horsedrivers to unleash breakthrough performances. (Are you listening, Juan PabloMontoya?) In 2007 Chase first-timer Clint Bowyer's dominating victory propelledhim to a surprising third-place finish in the final standings, and GregBiffle's win last September helped keep him in the top five for the duration.He wound up third.

But the race canalso be a killer. A lousy run puts a driver in a hole. Kyle Busch had aseries-high eight wins during the '08 regular season and arrived in NewHampshire as the No. 1 seed in the Chase as well as the favorite to win hisfirst Cup. But a mechanical failure relegated Busch to a 34th-place finish, andthe Shrub never recovered. He came in 43rd the next week at Dover because of ablown engine and promptly declared, "We're out of the title hunt, that'sfor sure." Busch slouched his way to Homestead (average finish over thelast eight races: 14.3) and finished 10th in the Chase.

Week 3 | Kansas,Oct. 4

Just Jimmie beingJimmie

Stop number 3 onNASCAR's postseason tour features the first 1.5-mile oval of the Chase. Suchtracks are the specialty of one Jimmie Kenneth Johnson, who will be drivingthis fall for an unprecedented fourth straight title. In his seven careerstarts at Kansas, JJ has one victory, which came last fall, and five top 10s.But as impressive as those results are, it's what they portend that strikesfear into the hearts of Cup drivers. Kansas is where Johnson and crew chiefChad Knaus reveal their hand. The Chase includes four similar ovals (includingthe two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.), and Johnson excels on themall. Any driver aiming to take his crown will have to beat Johnson at thesetracks.

Carl Edwardsmight be that driver. He's been outstanding in his career on intermediatetracks, and last season, when he won a Cup-best nine races, he was downrightdominant. Cousin Carl was second to Johnson in '08 at Kansas and went on to winat both Atlanta and Texas. If not for a nightmarish 33rd-place run atCharlotte, Edwards might have won his first series title.

Week 5 |Charlotte, Oct. 17

Keep an eye onthe also-rans

While the top 12battle for the Cup over the final 10 races, everybody else in the series iscompeting with an eye on next year. And because of NASCAR's testing ban, aweekend's worth of laps at Lowe's Motor Speedway is invaluable to those teamsoutside the Chase. Nearly half the Cup schedule consists of intermediate ovals,and the Charlotte track is the template for just about all of those venues. Foroutfits that have struggled in 2009, such as Richard Childress Racing, theresults here this October will be secondary to their preparations for nextseason. RCR drivers Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick—all of whomqualified for the Chase in '07 and '08 but missed the cut this year—will belooking to collect as much data as they can at Lowe's in hopes of finding thespeed their team was missing this season. Likewise, rising teams such asMichael Waltrip Racing will be searching for a winning formula for 2010. Theroad to next year's postseason begins at Lowe's.

Week 7 |Talladega, Nov. 1

Be afraid. Bevery afraid

The Big One. It'sout there, lurking on Talladega's high bankings. The only question is, WhichChasers are gonna get it? Last year's answer came with a twist—an overeagerEdwards got into the back of Roush Fenway Racing teammate (and fellow Chaser)Greg Biffle on Lap 174 and caused a 12-car pileup that also took out RoushFenway's Matt Kenseth. Johnson cleared the carnage by inches and went on to winthe title. But over the years wrecks have taken out plenty of contenders,including Kyle Busch in 2007.

The strategy forsurvival is to hang back in the draft and try to leave room to react to anaccident up front. But with cars getting shuffled back and forth all afternoon,it's nearly impossible to stay outside the danger zone for all 188 laps. As thefinish nears, the sense of peril increases. Still, even though Talladegaproduces some unlikely winners—Brad Keselowski, anyone?—over the years in theChase the top drivers have generally run to form. Since the first Chase in2004, the average finish of the eventual Cup champion has been 8.4. Johnson's24th in '06 is the only one outside the top 10.

Week 9 | Phoenix,Nov. 15

Table setter forthe finale

Any driver stillin contention when the series reaches the desert needs a strong finish to keephope alive until the season's final day. Edwards needed to beat Johnson atPhoenix last November to have a realistic shot at the Cup the following week atHomestead-Miami Speedway. His fourth-place finish wasn't enough against JJ'swin, and even a victory at Homestead wasn't enough to give Edwards thetitle.

Indeed, thisshould be the race in which to watch Johnson closely. He's won the fall eventat Phoenix the last two years, a clear sign that he and Knaus grasp theimportance of the race. In 2006, the year they didn't win, Johnson was second.Those finishes meant that winning the finale wasn't necessary, and that allowedthem to coast a bit at Homestead. In the last three seasons Johnson's averagefinish on the last day has been 10.3.

Scouting Reports

Who'll move up, who'll move down—and who'll come outon top when the checkered flag flies at Homestead

1. Jimmie Johnson

Regular-season finish 3rd

Wins 3 / Top 5s 9 / Top 10s 15

Best at Phoenix

Worst at Talladega

Are you ready for some history? People keep trying notto make him the favorite, and every year he just keeps winning. The fact is,with the resetting of the standings, the Chase perfectly suits the strategy ofJohnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who spend the regular season preparing todominate the final 10 races. On tracks that will be in the Chase, Johnson'saverage finish in 2009 was 8.6.

2. Tony Stewart

Regular-season finish 1st

Wins 3 / Top 5s 13 / Top 10s 18

Best at Dover

Worst at California

It's been a magical year for NASCAR's onetime enfantterrible. Now a mature professional, Stewart took over a moribund Haas outfitand turned it into a powerhouse in less than a year. Yes, his team's gotten aboost from Hendrick, but Stewart has been driving his fanny off since hefinished eighth at Daytona on opening day. About the only thing countingagainst him is Johnson's record of dominance.

3. Carl Edwards

Regular-season finish 8th

Wins 0 / Top 5s 7 / Top 10s 11

Best at Texas

Worst at New Hampshire

The preseason favorite to win it all after he took aseries-high nine races a year ago, Edwards has been a disappointment. He'sstruggled all year to stay consistent, and his 37th-place finish on Sept. 6 atAtlanta, one of his favorite tracks, has to be a cause for concern. Still, morethan any other driver, he's proved that he has the stuff to challenge Johnsonon the Chase's crucial 1.5-mile ovals.

4. Mark Martin

Regular-season finish 6th

Wins 4 / Top 5s 9 / Top 10s 14

Best at Dover

Worst at New Hampshire

For all his success in 2009, NASCAR's wizened gnomehas seemed to drift at times—his seven finishes outside the top 30 are the mostof any Chase driver. Has he been saving something for the postseason? Martin iscertainly driving a car that's fast enough to win races. He may have somethingfor the young fellers yet.

5. Jeff Gordon

Regular-season finish 2nd

Wins 1 / Top 5s 12 / Top 10s 18

Best at Martinsville

Worst at Texas

The four-time champ has morphed into this year'sversion of Jeff Burton, a driver who's almost never a threat to take the winbut nevertheless gets up for a solid points finish at the end. His 2009 racingform—he would begin races strongly, encounter midrace problems and then recoverin time to claim another top 10—isn't a winning one for the Chase.

6. Denny Hamlin

Regular-season finish 4th

Wins 2 / Top 5s 9 / Top 10s 14

Best at Martinsville

Worst at Kansas

Hamlin got his second win of the year last Saturday inRichmond (his first multiple-victory season since he won twice in 2006 on theway to Rookie of the Year honors). That could signal a timely change of gears:Hamlin excels at racing for points—as shown by his overall fourth place finishin '08—but to contend for the Cup he'll need to gamble for some wins.

7. Kurt Busch

Regular-season finish 5th

Wins 1 / Top 5s 7 / Top 10s 14

Best at New Hampshire

Worst at Dover

His win at Atlanta on March 8 was Busch's third top 10in the first four races. He was rarely that consistent again. His finishes onintermediate tracks were mixed at best, though his third place in the June raceat New Hampshire is a good omen: A solid start this week could propel the 2004Cup champion into contention once again—and he's steady enough to stay withinstriking distance to the end.

8. Juan Pablo Montoya

Regular-season finish 10th

Wins 0 / Top 5s 2 / Top 10s 12

Best at Texas

Worst at California

Once thought of as a road race specialist who was toowild to put together a consistent season, Montoya has performed well on alltypes of tracks this year and has made the Chase for the first time. That willprobably have to be victory enough. Even if Montoya had ever won a race on aChase track, which he hasn't, the fact that his cars just don't seem as fast assome of the others would be reason to doubt his chances.

9. Kasey Kahne

Regular-season finish: 7th

Wins 2 / Top 5s 5 / Top 10s 10

Best at Charlotte

Worst at Talladega

Kahne is back in the Chase after missing out for thepast two years. And is he peaking at just the right time? His performance onSept. 6 at Atlanta—where he qualified second and went on to take thevictory—would seem to indicate as much. Certainly Kahne is always a threat towin races, but there's little in his record this year to suggest that he'll beable to maintain such a pace. His longest streak of top 10s is just threeraces.

10. Ryan Newman

Regular-season finish 9th

Wins 0 / Top 5s 5 / Top 10s 12

Best at Dover

Worst at Homestead

It was a bounce-back year for the other member of thenew Stewart-Haas operation. Though he didn't win a race, Flyin' Ryanreestablished himself as one of the top drivers in the Cup garage and qualifiedfor the Chase for the first time since 2005. Newman closed out the regularseason with three straight top 10s, the first time he'd done that since he ranoff six straight from April 26 through June 7.

11. Greg Biffle

Regular-season finish 11th

Wins 0 / Top 5s 8 / Top 10s 12

Best at Homestead

Worst at Martinsville

Much as he did last season, the Biff went winlessthrough 2009 despite being one of the circuit's stronger and more consistentdrivers. If he can repeat his Chase performance of a year ago—when he won thefirst two races—Biffle could be a surprise contender again. Working against himis the overall performance of Roush Fenway, which hasn't been up to the highstandard of '08.

12. Brian Vickers

Regular-season finish 12th

Wins 1 / Top 5s 4 / Top 10s 13

Best at Talladega

Worst at Texas

Just about the hottest driver over the last twomonths, Vickers has been running up front and logging top 10s with regularity.He and crew chief Ryan Pemberton have clearly figured out their car, andthey've also shown a willingness to gamble—their fuel-mileage win at Michiganwas the catalyst in their Chase drive. They might not have the right car, butthey've got the right mind-set.



TO THE FOUR? With three straight titles, Johnson and his number 48 Chevy remain the team to beat.