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Drivers are looking for a shift in momentum

Fontana NASCAR race is next-to-last before Chase, and everyone is jockeying for position.

August 31, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

It's crunch time for several drivers seeking a shot at NASCAR's premier championship.

Today's Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, and next week's race in Richmond, Va., are the last two events to determine which drivers will vie for the Sprint Cup Series stock-car racing title.

The top 12 drivers in points qualify for the "Chase for the Cup," a late-season playoff during the last 10 races that decides the championship.

Going into today's race at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, only the top two in points -- leader Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, who have dominated the sport this year with a combined 14 wins in 24 races -- are locked into the Chase.

The next three in points -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., reigning champ Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton -- can clinch Chase berths if they finish high enough in today's 250-lap race.

They're followed in points by Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon in ninth.

And rounding out the top 12 are Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer. All three need strong runs in the Pepsi 500 to bolster their Chase hopes.

In turn, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne -- who are 13th and 14th in the standings -- hope today's race will vault them into the top 12 and Chase contention heading into Richmond.

Only 101 points separate 11th (Hamlin) from 14th (Kahne), and a driver can win as many as 195 points in a single race.

"This is an important weekend," said Bowyer, driver of the No. 07 Chevrolet prepared by Richard Childress Racing. "We have to try and be on our game here," but "this is the type of track we have been struggling with this year."

Even those drivers who appear secure in the Chase are taking nothing for granted.

"It feels good to have a little cushion for sure, but with my luck being so bad [this season] I'll never count any cushion as enough unless I'm locked in," said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and the only three-time NASCAR winner at Fontana, feels the same way. Gordon is without a win this year in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

"We came off such a great year last year" when he finished second to Johnson in the Chase, but this season "we just haven't had the runs, haven't had the cars and, when we did have the cars, we haven't been able to put it together" for a victory, Gordon said.

Gordon noted that "you don't have to win a race to win the championship," but added that "we do need to get our performance up a bit to compete with Kyle and Carl."

Busch and Edwards will have an edge going into the Chase because NASCAR awards 10 bonus points for each win during the 26-race regular season. Otherwise, the 12 drivers all have their points reset to 5,000 when the Chase begins.

Stewart is another former champion who has not won this season but hopes to mount a charge during the Chase.

"It starts off as anybody's game," said Stewart, who is leaving Gibbs after this season to co-own his own Cup team next year. "No matter where you're at when you start the Chase you have to be ready when the Chase starts and be able to seize that opportunity."

In the meantime, Ragan hopes to join Stewart and the others in the Chase in only his second full year in the Cup series.

Ragan is a mere 12 points out of the 12th and final Chase spot and, if he makes the playoff, it would give Roush Fenway Racing four drivers in the Chase.

"Two more races to go," Ragan said. "I feel like if we just go out and not make many mistakes -- kind of like our whole year -- if we don't hurt ourselves, I think we'll be fine."

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Burton, driver of the No. 31 Childress Chevrolet, is scheduled to make his 500th Cup start today. . . . Comedian and TV personality Drew Carey is the race's grand marshal and will give the "start-your-engines" command. . . . No driver has ever won a Cup race at Auto Club Speedway from the pole, but six drivers have won a pole and a race there on different dates.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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