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Week 1 | New Hampshire, Sept. 20
The first step's a doozy
This Sunday's opener at Loudon can set the tone—and determine strategy—for the nine races that follow. Because a win can put a driver in position to contend for the rest of the season, New Hampshire has recently become a showcase for dark horse drivers to unleash breakthrough performances. (Are you listening, Juan Pablo Montoya?) In 2007 Chase first-timer Clint Bowyer's dominating victory propelled him to a surprising third-place finish in the final standings, and Greg Biffle's win last September helped keep him in the top five for the duration. He wound up third.
But the race can also be a killer. A lousy run puts a driver in a hole. Kyle Busch had a series-high eight wins during the '08 regular season and arrived in New Hampshire as the No. 1 seed in the Chase as well as the favorite to win his first Cup. But a mechanical failure relegated Busch to a 34th-place finish, and the Shrub never recovered. He came in 43rd the next week at Dover because of a blown engine and promptly declared, "We're out of the title hunt, that's for sure." Busch slouched his way to Homestead (average finish over the last eight races: 14.3) and finished 10th in the Chase.
Week 3 | Kansas, Oct. 4
Just Jimmie being Jimmie
Stop number 3 on NASCAR's postseason tour features the first 1.5-mile oval of the Chase. Such tracks are the specialty of one Jimmie Kenneth Johnson, who will be driving this fall for an unprecedented fourth straight title. In his seven career starts at Kansas, JJ has one victory, which came last fall, and five top 10s. But as impressive as those results are, it's what they portend that strikes fear into the hearts of Cup drivers. Kansas is where Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus reveal their hand. The Chase includes four similar ovals (including the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.), and Johnson excels on them all. Any driver aiming to take his crown will have to beat Johnson at these tracks.
Carl Edwards might be that driver. He's been outstanding in his career on intermediate tracks, and last season, when he won a Cup-best nine races, he was downright dominant. Cousin Carl was second to Johnson in '08 at Kansas and went on to win at both Atlanta and Texas. If not for a nightmarish 33rd-place run at Charlotte, Edwards might have won his first series title.
Week 5 | Charlotte, Oct. 17
Keep an eye on the also-rans