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THE CHASE

Star on the bubble

With only two races left, Earnhardt Jr. is 158 points out of the 12th and final position in NASCAR's Chase.

August 30, 2007|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

When Brian France had the bright idea to introduce the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship, NASCAR's chairman was hoping to create more excitement and end-of-the-season drama that could give the NFL a run for its TV money on Sunday afternoons.

When the system was expanded this season to include 12 drivers instead of 10, many believed it was to ensure that two of the sport's biggest stars, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- both of whom missed the Chase in 2005 -- would be in races that mattered beyond August.

Gordon has done his part. The California driver of the famed No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet owned by Rick Hendrick holds the No. 1 position going into the Sharp Aquos 500 Sunday in Fontana, the penultimate event before the Chase. And Earnhardt? He needs big performances this week and next, but he also needs one of the four drivers he's chasing to fall flat on their tailpipe.

The remaining races are at the two-mile California Speedway, sister track to Michigan International Speedway, and the three-quarter mile Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, a short-track wild card where anything could happen.

Earnhardt must make up 158 points, which is certainly possible, but it won't happen unless those he's chasing encounter disaster similar to his own a year ago, when he dropped 220 points in the standings with back-to-back 43rd-place finishes at New Hampshire and Pocono to nearly fall out of the Chase.

A driver can earn as many as 195 points in a race, but can have a net gain of only 161 because the 43rd-place finisher receives 34 points. The winner receives 185, and there are additional bonus points for leading a lap, and leading the most laps. So 195 points is the magic number for Earnhardt fans this weekend. If he's not within the qualifying window, he's done.

Hold your breath, Budweiser fans.

The current Nextel Cup leaders:

* 1. Jeff Gordon (first, with 3,582 points): He is looking for his fifth victory this season and his fifth Cup championship. He was on the pole and finished second at the February race at California Speedway, and he took fifth last fall here.

* 2. Tony Stewart (-349 to Gordon): He has won three of the last six races and is positioned to win his third series title. He has been in the top 10 in three of the last four races at Fontana, and his Chevrolet was the car to beat in the fourth before its engine expired, but Stewart has never won here.

* 3. Denny Hamilin (-353 to Gordon): The second-year driver performs like a pro, but a 43rd-place finish at Bristol -- an engine failed him -- dropped him from second to third place in the Chase standings. He had gone 53 races without a DNF. In his three races at California, he has not finished lower than 12th.

* 4. Matt Kenseth (-419 to Gordon): His championship in 2003 was a major factor in bringing about the Chase format. He is the only man to have qualified for all four Chases. In 16 races at California and Michigan the last four seasons, he has 11 top-10s, including three victories in a Jack Roush Ford.

* 5. Carl Edwards (-422 to Gordon): With last week's victory at Bristol, which he called the biggest of the six in his career, the Roush Fenway driver locked himself into the Chase for the second time. He has two victories this season, and has finished sixth or better in five of six races at California. In 2005, he lost the championship to Stewart by 35 points.

* 6. Jimmie Johnson (-523, 338 ahead of Earnhardt): The defending Cup champion has slumped lately but he performs well at California Speedway -- he has two second-place finishes -- and will clinch a spot in the Chase by taking the green flag. He has four victories this season.

* 7. Jeff Burton (-528, 333 ahead of Earnhardt): Burton finished seventh in the championship last season. He will qualify for the Chase by starting the next two races. He last won a Cup race in April and has finished fourth and fifth in two of his last three races here.

* 8. Kyle Busch (-558, 303 ahead of Earnhardt): He has Hendrick reliability, and the toothy younger brother of Kurt Busch has four consecutive top-10 finishes at the speedway. Finishing 36th or better would negate anything that could happen at Richmond.

* 9. Clint Bowyer (-638, 223 ahead of Earnhardt): The 2005 Busch Series runner-up has yet to win a Cup race. In the best position of the four drivers that Earnhardt has a legitimate chance of catching, he has finished sixth, third and 14th at the speedway.

* 10. Kevin Harvick (-694, 167 ahead of Earnhardt): Harvick has one victory this season, the Daytona 500. He has had a spotty past at California -- his average finish in the last three Labor Day races is 19th -- but he won last year's race at Richmond heading into the Chase. A win at California would put him in the Chase because all he would need to do is start the race at Richmond.

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