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With one race to go, the Chase is off

Lineup for Nextel Cup's year-end playoff all but set, though Earnhardt has slight chance. But race may be interesting.

September 08, 2007|Ed Hinton and Jim Peltz | Special to The Times

Kurt Busch had this to say about tonight's final race of the Nextel Cup regular season.

"It's interesting," he said Friday, "that there's nothing interesting in the race to the Chase."

NASCAR's playoff field is so solidly set that even Dale Earnhardt Jr., the only driver outside the top 12 with a mathematical chance to make it in on the last chance tonight, conceded that "you pretty much have the 12 guys locked in."

That's a drastic departure from the previous three years, when the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 was a brawl for the final few berths in the Chase for the Cup.

So other than Earnhardt's desperate run, there's nothing interesting about the championship situation.

But that could make the race itself interesting. With nothing to lose, and 10 bonus points to be gained in the Chase seeding by winning the race, the locked-in drivers may be in win-or-else mode.

Jimmie Johnson, who'll start on the pole after a qualifying lap at 126.298 mph, will be seeded first when the Chase starts next week at Loudon, N.H. Teammate Jeff Gordon, who'll start alongside on the front row, needs one more win to equal Johnson's five this season, and start the playoffs in a tie for first.

So they'll both gamble.

"If it comes down to fuel strategy, why not?" Johnson said. "If it comes down to tire strategy, we'll probably roll the dice and go for a win. And if you're running second and the guy in front of you is locked into the Chase, it'll be time to rough him up."

Busch and Kevin Harvick are the only ones who need to play it conservatively. Earnhardt is 13th in the standings, 128 points behind 12th-place Harvick and 141 behind 11th-place Busch.

Even if Earnhardt wins the race and leads the most laps, Harvick has to finish only 32nd or better and Busch 36th or better to lock into the Chase.

Early Friday, Dale Earnhardt Inc. said its No. 8 Chevrolet will be co-driven next year by Mark Martin and Aric Almirola after Earnhardt leaves the family team at the end of this season.

The announcement settled the question of what would happen to the No. 8, perhaps the most recognized car in Nextel Cup racing because Earnhardt is the sport's most popular driver.

Earnhardt is moving to Hendrick Motorsports next year after bitter contract talks failed between the driver and Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother who became DEI's owner when Dale Earnhardt Sr., the seven-time Cup champion, was killed during the Daytona 500 in 2001.

The younger Earnhardt had hoped to take the No. 8 with him. But the driver and Hendrick couldn't reach terms with Teresa Earnhardt on that move, either.

Robert Yates Racing said plans announced in July to form a partnership with Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing were scuttled, and that longtime owner Robert Yates would retire after this season.

Yates' son, Doug Yates, will manage the team next year with help from Roush Fenway Racing. Yates said David Gilliland of Riverside would return along with Travis Kvapil, a NASCAR truck competitor who would succeed the retiring Ricky Rudd in its other Ford.

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