NASCAR promised plenty of excitement in last weekend's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 -- the final race to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- and the drivers delivered.

By the time the checkered flag dropped Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, there were enough storylines to keep NASCAR fans talking for the rest of the season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not a factor, mathematically eliminated weeks ago. But Earnhardt shares a shop at Hendrick Motorsports with Mark Martin, who left Richmond leading the points heading into this weekend's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Martin raced for two decades against Earnhardt's daddy, Dale Sr., and he finished second in points four times. With no Earnhardt in the Chase, will Junior's fans root for Martin? He's a perfect pick.

But there are other contenders at Hendrick. Jeff Gordon continues on his "Drive for Five," while Jimmie Johnson tries to become the first driver ever to win four consecutive NASCAR titles.

Meanwhile, owner Rick Hendrick has his hand in the efforts of other contenders. Brian Vickers, who raced his way into the Chase by staying ahead of Kyle Busch, was a close friend of Hendrick's late son, Ricky, and briefly lived with the family. Hendrick supplies engines for Tony Stewart's organization, Stewart-Haas Racing.

At the beginning of the season, no one picked Stewart to be in the running, but both Stewart and his employee/teammate, Ryan Newman, are in the Chase.


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More interesting for Stewart, if he wins the title this year, he will be the only driver to hold titles in the Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup eras.
Newman won the 2008 Daytona 500 but finished a lowly 17th in the standings last year. Ironically, the same fate could befall Matt Kenseth, who won this year's "Great American Race" but failed to make the Chase for the first time in his career. That leaves Johnson as the only driver in the six-year history of the Chase to make it every year.

Irony was not lost on Kurt Busch, back in the Chase after missing it last year. The elder Busch, reflecting on the fact that brother Kyle failed to make this year's cut by a mere eight points, said afterward, "I slid down and sat next to my car and thought for a moment what eight points means in this sport. I was on the fortunate side of winning the championship by eight points back in 2004. And to see my little brother not make it, it's devastating."

But with Kyle not in the Chase, the final 10 races should be very exciting. Last year he dominated leading up to the Chase and then choked when it mattered. With nothing to lose and racing for pride, look for the opposite to happen this year.

It's going to be an exciting Chase.

Ellen Siska writes about NASCAR for The York Dispatch. She can be reached at esiska@yorkdispatch.com.