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Rain puts showdown contenders up front

By wire services
Published August 21, 2004

BROOKLYN, Mich. - Contenders for NASCAR's new championship showdown will be bunched at the front of the field for the second week in a row to start the Nextel Cup race Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Rain washed out qualifying Friday for the GFS Marketplace 400, and the field was filled mostly by car-owner points. Series leader Jimmie Johnson and runnerup Jeff Gordon will start side-by-side in the front row of the 43-car field, just as they did Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

Johnson said he made an offhand comment to Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, that he really didn't earn the pole position starts at the Glen and here.

"Robbie said, "Yes, you did earn this one,' " Johnson said. " "Twenty-some weeks you've been one of the most consistent cars out there and have earned this spot in the points.' "

For the first time, only the top 10 drivers after the 26th race of the season - Sept. 11 in Richmond, Va. - will be eligible to race for the title during the final 10 events.

Barring the unexpected, the top five or six drivers in the standings appear to have little to worry about, except trying to build toward the championship playoff.

The major focus Sunday will be several rows behind the Hendrick Motorsports teammates, with drivers in positions eight through 15 in the standings separated by only 160 points and only four races remaining until the new Chase for the Championship begins.

"The farther out of the top 10 you are, the more risks you're going to take out there," Gordon said. "The guys who are sixth through 10 are just going to have to be solid and not do anything to hurt their situations."

Gordon said it's probably too early for any of them to take too many chances.

"The big risks will come with one, maybe two races to go," the four-time series champion said. "As each race goes by, they'll get riskier and riskier."

Johnson isn't too concerned about what will happen Sunday, even with so many strong entries needing to solidify or improve their positions.

"I'm not really worried about overaggression by people," said Johnson, who leads Gordon by 40 points and is 426 ahead of eighth-place Kevin Harvick. "You need always to remember who you're racing, what situation you may be in and approach them and race them with that in mind."

"That's what this points system is set up to do, create better racing, some action and more things to talk about."

Johnson also noted that, with the same situation at Watkins Glen, the start of the race went off without a hitch.

"As far as us lining up on points, I think everybody I'm around, especially in the top 10, will be pretty calm and relaxed," he said. "We all know it's a long race and there's nothing to gain right away."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start third, followed by Watkins Glen winner Tony Stewart, defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Harvick, Bobby Labonte and 10th-place Jeremy Mayfield.

Right behind will be rookie Kasey Kahne and defending champion Ryan Newman, who won here in June. Then it's Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray. All five are within 99 points of Mayfield.

BUSCH: The rain in Brooklyn, Mich., washed out qualifying and forced NASCAR to set the lineup for the Cabela 250 using season points and other criteria.

Series leader Martin Truex Jr. and runnerup Kyle Busch will start from the front in today's 250-mile event with Kevin Harvick and Jason Leffler next.

The Busch cars did get onto the 2-mile, high-banked Michigan International Speedway oval for practice Friday morning and Truex was easily the fastest at 187.251 mph before the session was ended 20 minutes early as the rain began.

Leffler was second in practice at 185.725, followed by Greg Biffle at 185.663, Michael Waltrip at 185.467 and Nextel Cup star Mark Martin at 185.342.

CREW CHIEF'S DAD DIES: Race car driver Tommy Baldwin was killed in a crash at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway during a Featherlite modified race.

Baldwin, 57, of Moriches, N.Y., is the father of Tommy Baldwin Jr., the crew chief for Nextel Cup rookie star Kasey Kahne. The elder Baldwin died at Hubbard Hospital in Webster, Mass., after Thursday night's accident.

"He's a great guy, someone we all looked up to," Ray Evernham, Kahne's car owner, said. "It's just a tragic loss for the whole sport."

Tommy Baldwin Sr. tried to avoid a collision with several cars coming out of a turn, state police said. His car went into the infield and struck three cement blocks near a light post. Baldwin's car was struck by a second car that had gone out of control.

[Last modified August 21, 2004, 01:01:16]


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