With five Chase races down and five to go, here are five things we’ve learned so far – and what they mean for the second half.

With five Chase races down and five to go, here are five things we’ve learned so far – and what they mean for the second half.


 


1 NASCAR’s rules are too vague


With ratings and attendance down, NASCAR needed a compelling Chase to re-energize its increasingly jaded fan base. Instead, the two dominant stories have involved a technical infraction and yet another “Boys, have at it” dust-up. David Reutimann, who’s not in the Chase, all but admitted that he deliberately damaged Busch’s car (and his title hopes) in retaliation for an early incident at Kansas. Reutimann received no penalty. Clint Bowyer’s championship aspirations, on the other hand, received what amounted to the death penalty after Bowyer’s “victory” at New Hampshire. NASCAR docked Bowyer 150 points because his car was a fraction of an inch out of tolerance. Worse, from a PR standpoint, the penalty wasn’t announced until three days later, after Bowyer’s car had cleared post-race inspection at the track.


 


What that means: No matter who wins the Chase, NASCAR loses. Frequent rule changes and inconsistent enforcement have damaged its credibility.


 


2 You can’t win the Chase in the first five races, but you can lose it


Bowyer wasn’t the only driver who went through an emotional wringer in Week 1. Rather than refuel and ensure solid top-10 finishes at New Hampshire, both Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton tried to stretch their fuel mileage in ill-advised attempts to win. They ran dry and finished 24th and 15th, respectively. Although Stewart went on to win at Kansas, neither he nor Burton has been able to climb out of the hole they dug at Loudon.


 


What that means: By racing as if they had nothing to lose at Loudon, Stewart and Burton really do have nothing to lose now. The only hope for the 14 and the 31 (and everyone else from fourth to 12th) is to gamble at every opportunity on setup, pit-stop and fuel-mileage strategy in an effort to steal a win or two and lead as many laps as possible. Even then their hopes will be slim. The Chase is a battle of attrition – and the remaining contenders have already demonstrated that they understand this. Jimmie Johnson’s willingness to settle for third last Saturday night at Charlotte rather than press the issue with runner-up Kyle Busch was ample evidence of that.


 


3 Never, ever, ever count Jimmie Johnson out


Johnson’s run last Saturday was a microcosm of his effort in the Chase so far. An early spin dropped him to 36th, but he came all the way back to lead 15 laps, finish third and actually expand his lead by five points. Likewise, Johnson got off to a rocky start in the Chase, finishing 25th at New Hampshire, but bounced back with a runaway win at Dover in Week 2. He’s had three more top-three finishes since then to assume command. Said Johnson after his impressive comeback at Charlotte, “I think tonight we proved to ourselves that we can come back and fight through issues and still get a good finish.”


 


What that means: Johnson is the prohibitive favorite.


 


4 As constituted, the Chase schedule is getting stale


Johnson has maintained throughout his record-setting championship reign that the 10 Chase tracks suit his style. He’s right. Here’s where he ranks in average finish at the five Chase tracks that the Cup series has visited so far: second at New Hampshire, second at Dover, third at Kansas, first at Fontana, second at Charlotte. Is it any wonder that he’s assumed the point lead? Even more discouraging for his challengers, his two best tracks, Martinsville and Phoenix, are yet to come.


 


What that means: Repeat: Johnson is the prohibitive favorite.


 


5 Even so, the Chase is an accurate barometer of the best teams (mostly)


Each of the 12 drivers in the Chase deserves to be there. But Jamie McMurray deserves to be there, too. McMurray’s win last Saturday is further proof that NASCAR should consider extending at-large Chase berths to drivers who win designated major races during the regular season such as the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 (both of which McMurray won this year). But this is a minor tweak. For the most part, the Chase format produces a worthy field. McMurray is the only non-Chaser to win so far this season (he was the only one to win last season, too). Chasers have hogged the front of the field, logging 80 percent of the wins in Chase races and 60 percent of the top-10 finishes. So there’s nothing wrong with the qualifying format. Again, what the Chase needs to generate interest (and test Johnson’s mettle) is a different lineup of tracks each year. But it’s not in the cards for 2011, when the only change of note is that Chicagoland will replace Fontana.


 


What that means: Johnson likely will be the favorite again next year.


 


ONE TO WATCH: Denny Hamlin


WHY HE MATTERS: He’s won two straight Martinsville Sprint Cup starts.


WHAT HE SAYS: “I think we have a good direction.”


WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’ll need it; he trails Chase leader Jimmie Johnson by 41 points.


 


NEXT RACE Tums Fast Relief 500, Martinsville Speedway


THE LOWDOWN Martinsville is the first of a one-two punch that could kayo several remaining Chase contenders. Like next week’s stop, Talladega, Martinsville produces heavy traffic that leads to bent fenders and frayed nerves. Unlike Talladega, passing is at a premium on the tight, flat half-mile oval. Look for Chasers who run well here, including Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, to spend all afternoon up front. Look for Chasers who don’t run well here, including Kevin Harvick, the Busch brothers and all three Roush Fenway entries, to struggle. And look for the Chase picture to be a lot clearer by sunset on Sunday.


 


 


PAST WINNERS


2009 Denny Hamlin


2008   Jimmie Johnson


2007   Jimmie Johnson


2006   Jimmie Johnson


2005   Jeff Gordon


2004 Jimmie Johnson


 


ABOUT Martinsville


TRACK: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.), .526-mile paved oval


RACE LENGTH: 500 laps, 263 miles


FIRST RACE: 1949


 


Quote of note


“I don’t know what the caution was for. Apparently there was a mouse that ran across the racetrack or something.” – Kyle Busch, on the yellow flag for debris with 24 laps left at Charlotte that enabled Jamie McMurray to pass him for the lead on the restart.


 


Where to watch


Sunday’s pre-race show on ESPN starts at noon EDT, followed by the race at 1:00.


 


UP TO SPEED


Front-runners in the Chase


Stats confirm that this year’s Chase field is no fluke. Through the first five Chase races, the top four lap leaders are all Chasers (see chart), and they’ve led more than 60 percent of the laps among them (909 of 1,501). Biggest surprise? Patrick Carpentier has led more laps in the Chase (11) than Kurt Busch (three), Jeff Burton (three) and Denny Hamlin (one) combined.


 


Controversy in the hall


The second class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame was as notable for who didn’t get in as who did. Drivers Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Lee Petty and David Pearson made it, along with car owner Bud Moore. Drivers Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough were excluded. Waltrip and Yarborough rank fourth and fifth, respectively, on the all-time list of Cup victories, well ahead of Petty and Jarrett, and each was a three-time Cup champion. In addition, Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times, second only to Richard Petty’s record of seven.


 


Milestone


Starting next season NASCAR will require an ethanol blend, Sunoco Green E15. In tests, the new fuel (which contains 15 percent ethanol) performed “probably better than we had first anticipated,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition.


 


WEEKLY STATS


2010 Chase lap leaders


 


RANK         DRIVER            LAPS LED


1          Kyle Busch        267


2          Jimmie Johnson            228


3          Clint Bowyer          211


4          Tony Stewart         203


5          A.J. Allmendinger         148


6          Jamie McMurray            98


7          Greg Biffle              61


8          Matt Kenseth          56


9          Mark Martin             50


10        Jeff Gordon      49


11        Kasey Kahne          27


12        Kevin Harvick          17 


13        Paul Menard                  14 


14        Patrick Carpentier         11 


15        Carl Edwards           10       


16 (tie)      Bobby Labonte       5


16 (tie)      J. B. Montoya         5


16 (tie)      Reed Sorenson       5   


19        Martin Truex Jr.       4   


20        5 drivers tied          3