The last few weeks have been rather relaxing. I could watch the NASCAR races without biting my fingernails to the quick because, barring major catastrophe Jimmie's place in the Chase was secure. By the last two races, he'd locked in, so he was absolutely and positively safe.
Now it is back to high stress racing when my nerves start sizzling from the minute the green flag drops until the checkered does however many hours later.
The first 26 races almost seemed to be the tale of two seasons. The high achievers in the first 13 races were not necessarily the high achievers in the second 13. Jimmie and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch shone at first, then all of them trailed off as time went on. In the end, neither Matt nor Kyle even made the Chase. Jimmie and Tony had built up enough points to stay at the top but face it, their last few races have been dismal.
Meanwhile, Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin, all of whom had struggled at the beginning, came on strong at the end. Those are probably the four with the most momentum heading into the Chase races.
Finally, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman maintained their place in the point standings, not with flashy performance, but steady competence.
So, if this is a season of divisions, perhaps, we can assume that the field will be tumbled again. That could mean that Jimmie and Tony's string of bad luck has ended and they'll be ready to fire up. Maybe, those who have been blazingly hot in the last several races will cool off. Or possibly the consistent middle will just stay consistent and tortoise their way to the championship while the hares self-destruct around them.
I've always been terrible at predictions but I'll make some none the less, just to show that I have the courage of my NASCAR convictions.
First, I put my faith in past experience. Jimmie and Tony are former champions with generally excellent execution, despite the series of glitches, like oddball lug nuts and inoperative radios and broken axles, that have caught them up in recent races. I think they'll be back at the top during the Chase. I'd include Jeff Gordon in the top three as well, simply because he's kept himself there all year.
Second, I'd be surprised if teams that haven't excelled in the first 26 races suddenly jump into superiority in the last ten (although last year, Kyle Busch was the exception that proves the rule in the opposite direction). This means that Roush will continue to be good but not great. Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya will remain the middle. (I don't buy the theory that Juan will now take the gloves off and race all out. I'm not sure it would work to establish a dynamic of cautious points racing for the Race to the Chase, then be able to suddenly flip your strategy in the Chase, but we'll see.) Kurt Busch is capable but I'd guess his crew chief leaving him right at the start of the Chase will be at least some distraction. For one thing, I wouldn't think there wouldn't be too much love lost between them (which may be part of the reason Tryson is leaving in the first place) and it may prove difficult for them to work together cooperatively. Busch is already a bit on the temperamental side and now Tryson doesn't have to take any crap.
Third, we wait to see if any of the last of the season high performers can keep it up. If any of them can, I'd say it would be Denny Hamlin because he's been oh-so-close to being in the brotherhood of the elite before, just hovering on that edge. He seems to have found his footing now. It doesn't feel like a flash-in-the-pan, but the real thing.
No so, Brian Vickers. There may be championships in his future, probably are. That whole team is outstanding considering they are only three years old but I believe they'll be tripped up in the end by that very inexperience. They'll fit into that "need to lose one to win one" category.
Kasey Kahne is a hot property right now, capable of winning a championship but I doubt it happens until RPM gets all its ducks in a row and gets settled. They've been such a muddle of mergers and manufacturers that it seems like it would be hard for Kasey to put blinders on and ignore it all. It's bound to bleed through no matter how hard he tries to work around the stress.
Mark Martin - Mark is the one I find it most difficult to be unbiased about. If I put on my objective hat, I have to say that despite his early ups and downs, he seems to have found his stride and that stride could take him right to the championship. He's probably the most driven of them all. Jimmie and Tony and Jeff and Kurt can say they are champions. Whatever happens this year, that will never change. Maybe that takes a tiny bit of the edge off. Their places in the record books are secure.
The rest of them are young. Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards, et al, at least have the assurance that if they don't get the trophy in 2009, they have several years ahead of them to accomplish that goal. By contrast, this is put up or shut up time for Mark. Last chance to git-er-done. That adds an extra element of motivation to Mark's racing and could provide the edge.
So, what do I think is going to happen? I'm afraid to be arrogant enough to predict with any confidence for fear I'll be a jinx....but my fervently hoped for conclusion is Four in a Row for Jimmie.
I may need a ten-week prescription of Valium until we find out.