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Non-Chase drivers show they're here for the party

They have filled half the top 10s in four playoff races.

Published October 16, 2004

CONCORD, N.C. - They threw a surprise party for Joe Nemechek in Dover a few weeks ago. There were balloons and cake with strawberry custard filling and soldiers at the back of the Army-sponsored hauler for the Nextel Cup journeyman's 41st birthday.

It was a celebration at the far end of the garage, where those not invited to the high society party finish out their season. Teams like Nemechek's No.01 Chevrolet, which did not do well enough over the first 26 races to earn one of the 10 spots in the NASCAR playoffs. The 33 or so teams not on that guest list might have been expected to keep their distance, but in the past two weeks, they have crashed the party.

If NASCAR's out-crowd keeps this up, they won't have to feel slighted anymore by the lack of attention they've gotten since the playoff field was set.

Nonchampionship qualifiers have filled half the top 10 slots in four playoff races, putting seven there at Talladega two weeks ago and six at Kansas last weekend. In the Kansas race, Nemechek won for the first time in 54 starts, followed by fellow non-Chasers Ricky Rudd and Greg Biffle.

"Any week anything can happen," said Nemechek, who is 21st in points but has three top 10s in the playoffs. "You get graded every week on how you do, and you never know who's going to have the best stuff. You have to constantly be on the top of your game, and last week we were on top of our game."

Playoff drivers are expected to be better. Kurt Busch, who leads the standings entering tonight's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, described the system as "almost like a cut-throat deal. "Each race that gets closer and closer to the end we might see one guy eliminated," he said. "We might see two guys eliminated, but there are still going to be those that aren't in the chase for the Cup that are running competitively that you're gonna have to beat.

"They're going to be out there just like the other guys are. There's a competitive field of over 40 cars that can win, and it's no different if the guys are locked in or if they're not in."

There's much less to worry about if there's nothing to lose. Nemechek would trade that feeling of ease for a playoff spot, but he'll do all he can to win again before the season ends Nov.21 at Homestead.

"Anybody who's not in the Chase, we don't have anything to lose," said the Lakeland native before posting the third-fastest time in final practice on Friday. "We're going as hard as we can, and if you're in the top 10 in points, you have to be careful you don't get crashed. But you still have to run good, so they're in a tough predicament there. We just keep digging week in, week out."

All this digging is forcing TV broadcasters to dedicate air time to the non-Chasers. Nemechek's emotional win, including a reverse victory lap for the late Alan Kulwicki and his brother, John, who died in 1997 from injuries in a truck race, dominated the final minutes of NBC's broadcast. That should allay some drivers' fears that those not in the title chase are doomed to no publicity and possible scorn from sponsors.

Joyce Julius, an Ann Arbor, Mich., based firm that tracks sponsor bang for the buck with a formula that takes into account time on television and ad rates, plans a postseason study of the Chase's effect, said vice president of research and development Eric Wright. With data from only one playoff race currently available, he said, sponsor value has remained consistent with the regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led all drivers with $143.6-million in value. Jimmie Johnson was next at $93.9-million. Michael Waltrip was third ($70.9-million) despite not making the playoffs. Waltrip's figure is partly a reflection of being mentioned as Earnhardt's teammate, Wright said.

There is hope for non-Chasers not in the Dale Earnhardt Inc. fold, Wright said. The champion has not finished atop the Julius figures in 20 years of tracking NASCAR, and how a car looks can be as important as how it drives.

Though Nemechek's affinity for his sponsor goes beyond repetition of the word Army, he'd like to put what he calls "the biggest company there is" back in Victory Lane for himself, too. So Chase drivers shouldn't expect him to concede. He's going for another piece of the cake.

[Last modified October 16, 2004, 01:01:20]


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