FONTANA, Calif. - The championship can wait. Never has there been so much attention on 10th place in NASCAR's premier series.
With two races left in what has been dubbed the Race for the Chase, five drivers are within striking distance of a position that would make them eligible for the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
The top 10 in the standings after next weekend's race in Richmond will be the only ones eligible to compete for the championship over the final 10 races.
Going into Sunday's Pop Secret 500, the five drivers closest to the final spot held by Ryan Newman are bunched within 45 points. Adding to the drama, Bobby Labonte is one point ahead of Newman, and eighth-place Kevin Harvick is five ahead.
"I'd say we've got 15 top-10 teams," said Jamie McMurray, tied with Dale Jarrett for 14th.
Even Elliott Sadler, in seventh place and 101 ahead of Newman, is a little nervous.
"We made up a lot of ground in the chase last week at Bristol with a fifth-place run," Sadler said. "I know I didn't win that race, but I sure felt like I did.
"With just two races left until the playoffs, I know I will also be a little more conscious on restarts and try not to put myself in a bad situation."
Sadler still remembers a flat tire last month at Michigan that cost him dearly in points.
"That's just part of racing," he said. "You can do everything perfect on some days and still not have the outcome you expect."
That isn't comforting for anyone racing for a top-10 spot.
McMurray, docked 25 points early this season when his team brought a car with an unapproved rear window to Bristol, has failed to finish six races and feels lucky to be in the running.
"If I could just have 10 points for each of my six DNFs, we'd be in the top 10," McMurray said. "It's all about finishing. The points system rewards guys that are consistent. If you can't do that, you don't deserve to be there anyway."
NEXTEL CHANGES: Bobby Hamilton Jr. will replace Ricky Craven in the No.32 PPI Motorsports car beginning Sunday.
It was announced in July that Hamilton would take over in 2005, but team owner Cal Wells III said Craven has stepped aside.
"We are grateful," Wells said, "Ricky Craven chose to allow us the opportunity to get a head start on the 2005 season. This will give Bobby and the team a chance to work together for the remaining events to build a foundation for next season."
Wells said Craven, who has driven for PPI since 2001, will be at the wheel once more, Sept.19.
FORMULA ONE: Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher escaped injury Thursday after a high-speed crash during testing for the Sept.12 Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
Medics tended to the German after he climbed from the car, but he did not go to the track hospital for a precautionary checkup.
Also, Vitantonio Liuzzi is among candidates to drive for the Sauber team next season, fueling speculation Ferrari is interested in hiring him as a replacement for Schumacher or Rubens Barrichello after 2006.
Liuzzi will test Sept.16 in Jerez, Spain, Sauber spokeswoman Ilka Wendlandt said in a telephone interview. Sauber is looking to replace Giancarlo Fisichella, who will join Renault next season.
CHAMP CAR: The Sept.25 event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway could prove to be Patrick Carpentier's lone opportunity to race on his hometown track.
Carpentier told reporters last weekend that his agent, Alan Labrosse, is in negotiations with an Indy Racing League team. Carpentier declined to name the team but added his agent also has had discussions with other Champ Car teams.
Carpentier told the Montreal Gazette he could remain in Champ Car, but likely not with his current team, Forsythe Championship Racing. Carpentier is its third driver, behind Paul Tracy and Rodolfo Lavin.
Carpentier said he wants to be the No.1 driver with a contending team and he has no problem with Tracy, who came to Forsythe before the 2003 season.