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by Monte Dutton

The chase has been divided

Juan Pablo Montoya began the Chase for the Sprint Cup with 5,000 points, which meant he was 40 points out of first place. Since then, Montoya has finished fourth or better in every race. Now he is 58 points out of first place.

Isn’t that incredible? Is there any doubt that Montoya is wondering to himself, “What do I have to do?” (One obvious by Monte Dutton answer: win a race.)

In the fourth of 10 Chase races, the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in California, the top five in points finished in the top five in the race. Jimmie Johnson, now leader and three-time defending champion, won, followed by Jeff Gordon, Montoya, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart. It wasn’t in order by points, but it was emblematic of the first four races.

The Chase itself separates NASCAR’s top series into haves and have-nots. The first four races have further divided the fortunate 12 — the drivers eligible to compete for the championship — into haves and have-nots. Perhaps there are now three castes: havehaves, have-have-nots and just plain old have-nots. Have-not classic, maybe.

Johnson, Martin and Montoya have been almost faultless. Stewart has scrambled, but magnificently (and in some cases, luckily) averted disaster. Gordon is there, waiting for a sign of weakness.

It’s still a bit too early to rule out a few others, but drivers like Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards just don’t seem capable of outperforming the top five. Their cars just don’t seem fast enough, at least not on a regular basis.

At this point in 2007, Johnson and Gordon were doing this, but this is the first Chase in which so many have been so bulletproof. That’s likely to change, but the near-perfection of the top trio — Johnson, Martin and Montoya — is astonishing. Their finishes:

Johnson: 4, 1, 9, 1. Martin: 1, 2, 7, 4. Montoya: 3, 4, 4, 3. “It’s incredible,” said Montoya. “We have four [great finishes] in a row, and I’ve been losing points to the leader. It is what it is. … You ain’t going to make any points on anybody. Everybody that runs good is going to be there. You just got to make sure you don’t lose any.”

Three are right there. Stewart and Gordon are lurking. Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have lost their grip. Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers are already off the radar.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_thisweek@yahoo.com. (c) 2009 King Features Synd., Inc.

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