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The Smart Money is on Matt Kenseth to Win the Nextel Cup Championship...By Hartley Henderson

The chase format initiated by NASCAR in 1994 has been a big success for the series. The format, designed to combat fan disinterest when a driver begins to run away with the series (as happened with Kevin Harvick in the Busch series this year), has produced consecutive exciting finishes with Kurt Busch beating Jimmie Johnson by 8 points in 1994 and Tony Stewart besting Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards by 35 points last year. However, each year the winning driver had a fairly hefty lead going into the last few races, so the outcome was somewhat predictable. This year though, is a different story. When the 26 races were complete this year ending the "regular season", Matt Kenseth had the lead over Jimmie Johnson, followed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. It was the consensus by most experts that of the10 drivers who qualified for the chase, Kenseth and Johnson were the overwhelming favourites. Those drivers had been the most consistent all year, and the tracks in the chase tended to favour their driving style. For someone else to win they needed Kenseth and Johnson to record a DNF or two.

Jimmie Johnson had 2 separate, disastrous results in the first 4 chase races. At New Hampshire, Johnson became involved in an accident and finished 38th. And at Talladega, while trying to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead, he was spun out by his team mate Brian Vickers and placed 24th. Matt Kenseth had dismal results at New Hampshire and Kansas finishing 25th and 23rd respectively, and in fact had only one top 10 finish - a 3rd at Talladega. So one would have expected to see Kenseth and Johnson well back in the points, but not so this year. In fact every single driver in the chase had their share of problems over the first 6 races. Kyle Busch had disastrous results in the first 2 races of the chase, Kasey Kahne was worse than 30th at Dover and Kansas, Gordon crashed at Talladega and every other driver had at least 2 horrible results. In fact, the only consistent driver throughout the chase was Jeff Burton, who suddenly found himself with a 45 point lead over Kenseth, an 89 point lead over his Childress team mate Kevin Harvick and was at least 100 points in front of all the others heading to Martinsville with 5 races to go in the season. Burton, who hadn't won in 4 years, and was a 200/1 longshot entering the season, was now the 7/5 favorite to win the championship. But once again, things were to change as Jeff Burton blew an engine early in the race at Martinsville and wound up 42nd in that race. So with 4 races to go at the tracks in Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, once again Kenseth leads Johnson and Harvick. Only now Kenseth leads Harvick by 36 points and Johnson by 41 points. The rookie sensation Denny Hamlin is 4th, only 47 points back and Jeff Burton is 5th, 48 points behind the leader. All others are at least 90 points back.

Clearly the point differential isn't insurmountable, but why should anyone at this point expect Kenseth to lose? He has a bigger lead, only 4 races to go and has done well in the past at all the final tracks. Atlanta has never been his best race track, but his last two races there produced finishes of 13th and 5th. At Texas he finished 2nd in the first 2006 race at the track, a race he probably should have won. And he finished 3rd in the first race at Phoenix. The track at Homestead-Miami only has one NASCAR race on the schedule each year, but it has been owned the last 3 years by Jack Rousch cars, of which only Kenseth and Mark Martin made the chase. And if Kenseth has the lead heading into that race he likely won't be beat. If he produces top 10 finishes in all 4 races it is highly unlikely he will be passed by anyone. The most dominant driver over the past 2 years at the last 4 tracks has arguably been Kasey Kahne who won at Atlanta and Texas and will be using the same car for those races, but he is 99 points back. For Kahne to pass Kenseth, he will have to hope for at least a couple of horrible results from the 2003 NASCAR champion. But if there's one thing Kenseth has been throughout his career, it is consistent. It certainly is possible that Kenseth could lose the chase to Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick or one of the trailers, but the smart money at this point has to be on the #17 Dewalt Ford.

Hartley Henderson

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