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Chase Puts All Drivers at Edge of Their Seats

Those with no chance to win the NASCAR title feel the pressure because they don't want to cause an accident that knocks out a contender.

September 27, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Everyone knows about the pressure on the 10 stock car drivers trying to win the Nextel Cup championship. But there is also stress for the 33 other drivers in the season's final 10 races.

Just because they didn't qualify for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff format doesn't mean they can take a leisurely Sunday cruise -- or drive recklessly to win.

Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne know that too well. Stewart, the reigning champion who did not qualify for the Chase this year, spun on the 12th lap Sunday at the one-mile Dover International Speedway in Delaware and collected Kahne, who is in the Chase.

The crash badly damaged Kahne's Dodge -- and his hopes of winning the title. He's now ninth in points, 182 behind Jeff Burton, whose victory at Dover lifted him into the Chase lead with eight races left.

It also left Stewart feeling terrible for his buddy Kahne.

"Wrecking is one thing, but when you take out somebody that's in the Chase, you've screwed up a whole team's year by one race," said Stewart, who returned to the Dover field after his spin but finished 33rd. "And of all people, it's one of my good friends."

Despite having won a series-high five races this year, Kahne barely made it into the Chase. Then the Evernham Motorsports driver opened the Chase with a 16th-place finish at New Hampshire before finishing 38th on Sunday.

A disappointed Kahne said, "That's something you never see -- Tony losing a car. Things just happen, and I was the car that hit him. I just ran out of room."

Stewart's miscue illustrated the difficulty faced by the drivers outside the Chase.

On the one hand, they're still under pressure from their team owners, corporate sponsors and fans to race as hard as they can. The championship might be out of reach, but each race and the overall points battle still provide millions of dollars in potential prize money.

"While there are 10 teams and drivers out there trying not to make a mistake, we're going to be aggressive," said veteran Sterling Marlin, who led one lap Sunday but finished 31st. "The guys who are in the Chase have a lot more to lose than those of us who aren't."

And Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion who's third in this year's Chase, says he doesn't expect those outside the Chase to roll over.

"I don't think any of the Chase drivers deserve any special treatment," said Kenseth, the Roush Racing driver who battled Burton for the lead but ran out of gas late in Sunday's race and finished 10th. "Everybody out there has equal rights to be on the racetrack."

Yet, Marlin and the others also don't want to be responsible for taking a Chase driver out of title contention, and, if their cars aren't competitive, they'll consider letting the Chase contenders slip by.

"No one wants to get caught up in an accident," Marlin said.

It's a problem that has surfaced before. In the first year of the Chase format in 2004, Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle crashed in the opening round in New Hampshire. They weren't in the Chase, but their accident collected two drivers who were -- Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield.

The Chase was all but over for Stewart and Mayfield after their poor finishes that day, and Kurt Busch won the Nextel Cup.

Sunday's incident prompted Stewart to again call for changes in the Chase format, so that a contender's chances aren't dashed by one poor finish caused simply by misfortune.

"I don't think this Chase thing was thought out well enough," said Stewart, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. "The guys that have an opportunity to win the Chase are guys that just don't have bad luck. It's not about anything else.

"Kasey can go out and win the rest of the races and not win the championship still. It's not about who's going to win the championship based on good finishes, it's going to be about guys who just don't have a bad day."

The third race in the Chase will be run Sunday at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.



Sunday, Banquet 400, Kansas Speedway, 10:30 a.m. PDT, Ch. 4.

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