BRISTOL, Tenn._ When NASCAR altered the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2007 to give drivers 10 bonus points for winning a race, the hope was that drivers would race for a win rather than for points. However, as the 2010 Chase approaches, six drivers in the top 12 in standings are without a win.
As the cutoff for the Chase approaches, the question is, "Could there be a champion without a win?"
As of this weekend, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin lead the field in bonus points with 50 each, followed by Kevin Harvick with 30, Kurt and Kyle Busch with 20 a piece and then Greg Biffle with 10. Those currently without a win and thus no bonus points include Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer. Even Mark Martin – who is only 35 points out of 12th – is without a win.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon has contended for wins multiple times throughout the year, but has yet to visit Victory Lane. Sitting second in the standings, Gordon knows wins are important, but does not rule out a winless champion.
"I've always said that there's no doubt that you can win it without winning races,” Gordon said. “The problem that I see right now is when they start the Chase, guys that haven't won a race are going to be at least 50 points down to start the Chase. And you're talking about the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) to the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin), the No. 29 (Kevin Harvick) has 3 or 30; those are hard numbers to overcome. So I think the only way you can overcome those is you're going to have to win in the Chase. So I think there's no doubt it can be done. It's very competitive out there right now.”
Gordon has used consistency, 10 top-5s and 13 top-10s to climb his way to second in the series standings and if he cannot find Victory Lane in the next three races, he hopes that consistency will overcome the gap of not having any bonus points. However, the Hendrick Motorsports driver knows that winning would make things a lot easier.
"Consistency is still key but I'm almost wondering right now if it's more important to win during the regular season than it is in the Chase,” Gordon added. “Get the bonus points to get yourself seeded where you really need to, to get that advantage going into the Chase and then knock-out your top five's throughout the Chase and win it that way. But you've still got to win. So I think you need to win. I don't think you need to win, I think the guy who wins the championship is going to at least have one win this season and more than likely in the Chase."
If what Gordon said is true, he only has three more chances to get that regular season win before the Chase starts. Currently second in the standings, the four-time champion could fall to seventh, at best, once the Chase begins following the race in Richmond.
Solidly in the Chase, it may be easy to say the team has the opportunity to throw caution to the wind over the next three weeks, however Gordon says the team gives it their all every week.
“I'm doing everything I can inside the car and I know (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) is doing everything he can on the box and the pit crew,” Gordon said. “We just don't go about it any differently because we feel like we're already giving 100 percent.”
Among those in the top-12, Gordon’s feelings seem to be a consensus. While most feel it is unlikely, they admit under the right circumstances the feat could be accomplished.
“I think all the circumstances would have to really go your way,” points lead Kevin Harvick said. “But, it is definitely possible. I hear a lot about winning and if you look back at our sport, I think it is built on being successful but it is not necessarily built on having to win every week.
“If you finish in the top-five every week, you are going to win the championship,” said Harvick. “I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. Over the last 10 weeks, it is still 10 weeks. There are still 26 other weeks that you did something right.”
One guy that has done something right over the last four years has been Jimmie Johnson. Since winning his first title in 2006, Johnson and his No. 48 team have been the one to beat, yet nobody has been able to do so, regardless of their bonus point advantage.
Last season, Johnson had only three wins while Mark Martin had four and was able to jump nine spots to the top of the standings when the field was reset. In the end, Johnson peaked in the final ten races and overcame the deficit.
In 2008, Kyle Busch dominated the regular season, winning eight races and entering the Chase with 80 bonus points. Despite the 30-point advantage over Carl Edwards in second, Busch fell on his face once the Chase started and wound up 10th at the end of the season.
Even this year, Edwards has gained more points than any other driver over the last few weeks without a win and only leading a total of six laps. In 2008, Edwards won more races (nine) than any other driver, but it was Johnson that took home the title.
“In a way, I’m more proud of our performance these last six races than if we had a dominant car and we were out winning races but not scoring as many points,” Edwards said. “I say that because in 2008 we won more races than anybody else. I know what that feels like. I know how the car has to be, and for us to do what we’re doing and potentially do what we could do this year, if we were to win the championship without winning any races, in a way, that shows you that you’re making a lot out of maybe a car or situation that isn’t a race-winning one.”
For the most part, Chase drivers without a win contend that regardless of having a win or not, they would take the championship any way possible.
“I’ll take the check,” Tony Stewart said. “I’ll take the trophy. I don’t care if I didn’t finish in the top-10 the last 10 weeks if I got enough points to win the championship, I don’t care where I finish as long as I get more (points) than the rest of them do.
“I don’t think anybody really cares if they win a race to win the championship. I don’t think that is what it is about,” Stewart added. “We all know what the format it. We all know what we have to do to accomplish that goal. It doesn’t matter how you get there, it is accomplishing the goal. The journey getting there doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you go through rain, sleet, snow, hail; all you care about is that you get there at the end of the day.”
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