Championship Chase: Biggest names in NASCAR eye Sprint Cup crown in Miami Nov. 22
Jimmie Johnson flexed his muscle by capturing the pole position for Sunday's race at Dover. Montoya will start alongside Johnson for his second Top 5 start in his first two Chase races. The Chase will end at Homestead-Miami Nov. 22 (photo courtesy: Greg Zelevansky, Getty Images Sport)
Jimmie Johnson powered the No. 48 to the pole for Sunday's race at Dover. It is the three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion's second pole of the 2009 season and his second career number one starting position at the "Monster Mile".
Starting alongside Johnson will be South Florida's Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chevrolet in the second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"We just went out and ran what we could run. We ran a .95 in practice and ran a .97 for qualifying," said Montoya. "I thought it was a better lap than practice but still a great lap for this Polaroid Chevy team."
So just who is the favorite to win NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22?
"I think if you look at the 12 guys, I don't know that you could pick a favorite," said 2009 contender Greg Biffle, who won the first two races of the Chase a year ago. "I don't know that you could count any one of them out."
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship—to be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22—began with a bang two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Fifty-year-old Mark Martin entered the race as the No. 1 seed in the 12-car Championship Chase—on the merit of his “regular season”-high four wins—and earned his fifth after holding off a furious attack by South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya.
In Chase Race 2 this past Sunday, Martin finished second to Jimmie Johnson and continues to hold the top spot in the standings over a contending field that includes Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Montoya.
"Pinch me: I am sure I'm sleeping; I am sure I am dreaming," Martin said in Victory Lane at Loudon. Martin continues to hold the top spot in the standings over a contending field that includes Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Montoya.
"Pinch me: I am sure I'm sleeping; I am sure I am dreaming," Martin said in Victory Lane at Loudon. "This is my hardest place, a tough place."
The fan favorite has spent 27 years of his life chasing a NASCAR Championship, and his desire to track down that elusive first Sprint Cup title—to be awarded at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22—is what lured him back to drive for Rick Hendrick this year. Having finished second in the Sprint Cup Championship standings a heart-breaking four times, Martin was swayed when Hendrick offered him the No. 5 Chevrolet—and perhaps his best shot at a title.
"I can promise you one thing," Martin said before the Chase even began, “there is nobody in NASCAR having more fun than me—I'm sure about that. I like making history, and the very most fun of the whole thing that we're doing here is to see [my team members’] faces. I love those guys. I'm a pretty tough nut, and I've had a lot of disappointment.”
Despite Martin’s position at the top of the points standings, many still feel Johnson is the favorite, considering how well his team performs at "crunch time”—well, that and the fact he’s racing for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup Championship.
"I've never been into history, but as I get older I become more aware of history and more interested in it,” Johnson said of the potential to separate himself from racing legend Cale Yarborough, who captured three consecutive titles from 1976-78. "And the fact that I could be a part of it in our sport…who wouldn't want that legacy? It would just be awesome to do it.
"I feel like that we are stronger than we have been before going into the Chase," added Johnson, who led all drivers with 14 wins in the first 50 Chase races since its 2004 inception. "I've just seen a lot of great things….and I'm really looking forward to the final 10 and showing what I have been talking about."
A lot of people are talking about Stewart, the two-time Sprint Cup Champion who in his first year as boss became the first-ever owner/driver to clinch a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. A third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title—which would come at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22 during Ford Championship Weekend—would eternally link Stewart to Alan Kulwicki as the only owner/drivers to win NASCAR’s biggest prize. And Stewart is optimistic.
" I'm extremely satisfied with what we've done,” he said as the Chase approached. “Hopefully at the end of the year they call us Champions."
Gordon has been called “Champion” a legendary four times already and is looking to add a fifth Nov. 22 in Miami. A fifth Sprint Cup Championship would place Gordon in even more-rarified air, as he would need just two more titles to tie for the most Cup Series titles with NASCAR’s iconic figures: Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.
Adding to the drama: Homestead-Miami remains the only track on the NASCAR slate on which he never has won.
“I feel like for the most part that we're really in a great position to be a real threat,” Gordon said earlier this year.
Other drivers of note Chasing a Championship, to be crowned Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway:
► Montoya—the first foreign-born driver to ever qualify for NASCAR’s Championship Chase—jumped a remarkable seven spots in the points standings after Chase Race 1 and another in Chase Race 2 to sit third in points.
"Let's get into the Chase, and then let's have some fun," Montoya said prior to the Chase. “…We might have a shot at this."
► Brian Vickers, who claimed the final spot in the Chase with a strong run at Richmond, has scored more points (1,205) in the previous eight races than any other driver.
► Denny Hamlin won two races in a recent six-race span, finishing no worse than 10th during that run.
While Martin won the first battle in the Chase that culminates Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Championship finale, NASCAR legend Dale Jarrett last week told Sprint Cup broadcast viewers what many in the sport believe: “I think you may see six, seven, even eight contenders with a chance to win the Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami. I wouldn’t wait any longer to get those Championship tickets.”
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