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Earnhardt Jr. isn't alone on NASCAR bubble

With six races left before the Chase cutoff, even ninth-place Johnson feels the urgency, and Dodge still doesn't have a car among the top 12.

July 31, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Time is running out to make the Chase.

With Tony Stewart having won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday, there are six races left before the Nextel Cup Series' 10-race Chase to the Cup playoff that determines the series champion.

Those six events include the Sept. 2 race at the California Speedway in Fontana, and the season's 26th and final race to decide the Chase lineup at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

The top dozen drivers in points qualify for the Chase, and Stewart's win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway lifted the two-time series champion to fifth in points.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon leads by a whopping 371 points over Denny Hamlin, Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, but the points are reset for all the Chase competitors when the playoff starts.

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 title winner, is third for Roush Fenway Racing, and Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing is fourth.

But the pressure is building among several other drivers who are either trying to cling to the top 12 or climb into that group for a shot at the title in NASCAR's top series. Even reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, a four-time winner this year who had appeared to be safely in the Chase, isn't taking anything for granted after some poor finishes recently.

He was 39th in the Brickyard 400 after being in a multi-car crash and then, after getting repairs in the pits, hitting the wall and having his Chevrolet burst into flames. That dropped him to ninth in points. "It's been a steady roll of bad races for us," he said. "We've got to keep fighting and make sure we stay in this Chase."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 12th in the points -- the final slot in the Chase. He's only 13 points ahead of Kurt Busch and only 200 points separate Earnhardt from the next six drivers below him: Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya.

NASCAR awards points at each race on a graduated scale depending on where the driver finishes. The winner gets 185 points; the driver coming in last, or 43rd, gets 34 points. Drivers also can earn five additional points each for leading a lap and leading the most laps in a race.

Newman hoped to move into the top 12, but his Chase hopes were set back Sunday when his Penske Racing Dodge crashed early, requiring extensive repairs. He finished next-to-last.

That dropped Newman a notch to 14th in points. "It's devastating in more ways than one," Newman said of the wreck. "It just depends on how far we have to come back."

Earnhardt, meanwhile, was strong for most of the Brickyard 400 until his Chevy blew an engine with only 25 laps left. He finished 34th.

"Even if we were outside the cutoff, I'd still have a lot of confidence in my team" that we'd make the Chase, Earnhardt said. "I'm confident we'll be strong each week, and if we keep doing what we've been doing, we'll be fine."

Jamie McMurray started 15th in points and stayed there Sunday, after his Roush Fenway Ford was collected in the crash with Johnson. McMurray finished 33rd. The Chase is paramount not only for the drivers and teams, but for the auto manufacturers and sponsors.

At the moment, for example, no Dodge driver is among the top 12 and being locked out of the Chase would mean less exposure for Dodge and its parent company Chrysler.

"The Chase is obviously important to us," Darryl Jackson, Chrysler's vice president of U.S. sales and head of motor sports, said before Sunday's race.

But "everybody is in danger of not being in the Chase," he said. "Anything could happen that could drop someone out."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Chase

Nextel Cup standings through 20 out of 36 races. After the 26th race of the season, all the drivers in the top 12 will earn a berth in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.

*--* Pl Driver Points Behind 1 Jeff Gordon 3,076 -- 2 Denny Hamlin 2,705 371 3 Matt Kenseth 2,699 377 4 Jeff Burton 2,633 443 5 Tony Stewart 2,624 452 6 Carl Edwards 2,582 494 7 Kevin Harvick 2,488 588 8 Kyle Busch 2,479 597 9 Jimmie Johnson 2,469 607 10 Clint Bowyer 2,405 671 11 Martin Truex Jr. 2,335 741 12 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,217 859 13 Kurt Busch 2,204 872 14 Ryan Newman 2,158 918 15 Jamie McMurray 2,104 972

*--*

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