With any formidable challenge a gauntlet of events build to a final outcome. For the one competitor who can negotiate each test along the way the ultimate prize awaits. Each contest plays a part in the final result, and as the 2005 Chase for the NEXTEL Cup sprints its way to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 this weekend, title contenders face a high speed obstacle in their 10-race quest to claim the elusive year-end prize.
Tony Stewart, who is the current front runner in the Chase, has maneuvered his way through the many tests along the road to the 2005 championship the best so far. However, he has not been able to separate himself from many of his title foes, because one test along the way blemished his stellar performance. His misstep was at Atlanta's sister track, Lowe's Motor Speedway, when a tire problem sent his No. 20 Chevrolet spinning into the wall and 25th-place finish. The result, coupled with a Jimmie Johnson victory, brought the two competitors to the top spot of the points standing.
"We're definitely excited to be where we are in points," said Johnson. "But in these first five events, I believe that everybody can agree that there's been a lot of wacky stuff going on and nobody can predict what's going to happen. And I feel that way for the final five."
A week later, another challenge was thrown in the path of the Chase contenders. And with the top seven separated by just 92 points entering the race, any mishaps on the track would knock challengers from the ranks, leaving only a few competitors with a true shot at the No. 1 spot. The tight confines of the southern Virginia track would spell trouble for Mark Martin and Carl Edwards, who finished 35th and 26th, respectively. Rusty Wallace and Greg Biffle also missed an opportunity to keep pace with the Johnson Stewart tandem that finished second and third in the race.
"In the short picture, when you lead nearly 300 laps you'd like to win the race," said Stewart. "But in the big picture, we are where we need to be right now and did the things we needed to do today, so we can't be too disappointed."
The lightning fast track in Atlanta is the next hurdle to overcome and has set up a head-to-head battle between the top two contenders, who have both scored victories at the track in recent years and are running well week to week. But don't count out other contenders who have also run well at Atlanta and will be looking to take advantage of any miscues by the top two.
Third in points, Ryan Newman has owned the pole position at Atlanta, but has not parlayed that qualifying success into on-track results with finishes of 14th and 17th in the past two events.
The Roush contingent, who have been lurking just behind Stewart, Johnson and Newman, each hope to make their way back into the Chase and have proven success at Atlanta. Edward, who is fifth in points, is returning to the site of his first Cup victory earlier this season while Martin, who has tallied two top fives in the past two races, will look to rebound from his dismal day this past Sunday and improve his seventh-place in the standings. Fourth in points, Biffle, shows two Top 10 finishes on his Atlanta resume over the past two races.
And if any competitor thinks Atlanta is just a quick stop on the path to the Championship then a review of last year's edition of the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 would provide the proof that no race can be overlooked in the grueling 10-race gauntlet.
Kurt Busch, the 2004 NEXTEL Cup champion, faced one of his biggest tests in his pursuit of the title in last year's race. Just 52 laps into the race, white smoke quickly rose from the backstretch, but as Busch's black No. 97 limped back to pit road and into the garage, many of his competitors began to realize this race would have major implications in the outcome of the inaugural Chase.
Arriving at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the seventh race in the Chase, point leader Busch had built a comfortable 96 point margin on his closest competitor, having consistently finished in the top six of the previous Chase races. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was second, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third trailing by 125 and Jimmie Johnson, coming off back-to-back victories, a very distant 207 points to the rear. However, the Chase wasn't the only thing one everyone's mind, as the Hendrick Motorsports team and NASCAR community tried to deal with a tragic plane accident the previous weekend.
Although the No. 8 team would not be able to take advantage of the points, others would as the final caution set up a dual between Johnson and Martin. The No. 48 team fought hard to keep their emotions in check for the final 10 laps, as all eyes watched Johnson battle Martin for the checkered flag. In the end, Johnson scored the emotional victory and secured his third straight winner's trophy in three weeks. Johnson was joined by all his Hendrick teammates in a subdued victory lane celebration honoring their fallen friends.
"It doesn't change anything and we don't get back our friends we lost," said Johnson. "But it sure makes all of us feel a little better."
Johnson felt better about his title chances following the race moving to second just 59 markers behind Busch who was credited with the 42nd finishing position. Gordon fell to third only 72 points back with Martin in fourth and Earnhardt Jr. in fifth, 81 and 98 points back respectively.
"To win three in a row, to have the No. 24 have some trouble along with some of the other guys that were ahead of us in the points put us right back in this thing," said Johnson. "It's a whole new world for us. I think at this point with three races to go, nobody can play defense."
When the Chase teams left Atlanta, they know not to underestimate the fastest track in NASCAR. This year won't be any different.
Great seats for the entire Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 race weekend, including the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, are still available and can be purchased by calling 770-946-4211 or 877-9AMSTIX. Fans can also order tickets 24 hours a day at www.atlantamotorspeedway.com or www.ticketmaster.com