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The Chase Is On

Five drivers are within striking distance of top 10 and a berth in the playoff-style title run.

September 05, 2004|From Associated Press

No question that Jamie McMurray is a fine race driver. His math could use a little work.

"I'd say we've got 15 top 10 teams," said McMurray, one of 15 drivers battling for a spot in NASCAR's new "Chase for the Nextel Cup" championship format.

With just two races remaining in what has been dubbed the "Race for the Chase," five drivers are still within striking distance of a top 10 position in the points that would make them eligible for the playoff-style title battle.

The top 10 drivers in the standings after the race next week in Richmond, Va., will be the only ones allowed to compete for the season championship over the final 10 races of the season.

Going into today's Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway in Fontana, the five drivers closest to 10th-place Ryan Newman are bunched within 45 points of that coveted spot. Adding to the drama, Bobby Labonte is just one point ahead of Newman, and eighth-place Kevin Harvick is just five points out of 10th.

Even Elliott Sadler, solidly entrenched in seventh, 101 points ahead of Newman, is a little nervous.

"We made up a lot of ground in the Chase last week at Bristol with a fifth-place run," Sadler said. "I know I didn't win that race, but I sure felt like I did.

"Our goal for this weekend is to maintain our position in the standings and put ourselves in a good position for a solid finish.... With just two races left until the playoffs, I know I will also be a little more conscious on restarts and try not to put myself in a bad situation."

Sadler still has vivid memories of a flat tire last month at Michigan that cost him dearly in points.

"That's just part of racing," he said. "You can do everything perfect on some days and still not have the good outcome you expect."

That thought isn't comforting for any driver racing for a top 10 spot.

McMurray, docked 25 points early this season when his team brought a car with an unapproved rear window to Bristol, also has failed to finish six races this season and considers himself lucky to still be in the running for a playoff berth.

"If I could just have 10 points for each of my six DNFs (did not finish), we'd be in the top 10," McMurray said. "It's all about finishing. The points system rewards guys that are consistent. If you cant do that, you don't deserve to be there anyway."

And last year's top rookie figures that isn't going to change at Fontana or Richmond.

"I think it's going to come down to who doesn't have trouble in these next two races," he said. "Of those seven cars from eighth to 15th, someone is going to have trouble. Whoever doesn't is who is going to be in the top 10."

Newman, who fell out of the top 10 last month and has barely managed to get back in, is trying not to put too much heat on himself or his team.

"The points battle is really tight, but we, as a team, don't put any pressure on ourselves," Newman said. "We do all we can every weekend. That's all I can ask of these guys. If we put in a sincere effort, the points will work themselves out."

Jeremy Mayfield, tied with Mark Martin for 12th, just 35 points behind Newman and nine behind teammate Kasey Kahne, is trying to look at the big picture.

"This team is so far ahead of where we were a year ago. If we get in, it's a bonus to all of us," Mayfield said. "If we don't, that means we're going to be hungrier to be in it next year. Either way, there are great things in the future for our team."

That doesn't mean he is conceding anything, though.

"Our goal over the next two races is to get both of our team cars in the top 10. I think we can do it," Mayfield said.



Nextel Cup Standings

Following the 26th race of the season, the top 10 drivers and any driver within 400 points of the leader earn a berth in the Chase for the Championship:

*--* Rnk Driver Points Wins 1. Jeff Gordon 3,380 5 2. Jimmie Johnson 3,356 4 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,305 4 4. Tony Stewart 3,195 2 5. Matt Kenseth 3,156 2 6. Kurt Busch 3,051 2 7. Elliott Sadler 3,019 1 8. Kevin Harvick 2,923 0 9. Bobby Labonte 2,919 0 10. Ryan Newman 2,918 1 CHASE FOR CHAMPIONSHIP CUTOFF 11. Kasey Kahne 2,892 0 12. Jeremy Mayfield 2,883 0 12. Mark Martin 2,883 1 14. Dale Jarrett 2,873 0 14. Jamie McMurray 2,873 0


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