Scenarios are many, with one goal in mind
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase, but the shuffling behind them could change by the minute in tonight's Sony HD 500.
By BRANT JAMES
Published September 3, 2006
Don't get them wrong, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are smitten with the view from above the fray that is the third through 11th spots in the Nextel Cup standings.
Statistically assured berths in the Chase for the Championship with two races left before the 10-race playoffs begin at Loudon, N.H., the points leader and his pursuer can focus ahead, tweak if they dare, but not relax.
Even they have certain pressures. Johnson leads Kenseth by just seven points, but their breakaway pod is 314 ahead of third-place Kevin Harvick. None of that will matter in two weeks. Points leads are reduced to five-point increments once the standings are "re-racked" after Richmond, so maintaining momentum is crucial. Johnson held onto the lead with a 10th-place finish at often-perilous Bristol on Aug. 26 and Kenseth gave himself a boost into the Chase with a second straight win.
"We have (momentum) but it can be lost at any time," said Kenseth, the champion in 2003, the season before the Chase format debuted. "This is really important. The guys are operating at a championship level. I was worried about going into the Chase and not running good."
For Johnson, who has led the points for 16 weeks and 22 of 24 this season, this time of the year is about consistency. Late-summer swoons the past two years have damaged his runs for a first title.
"You can't change your approach," said Johnson, a two-time series runnerup. "I think we're all in a points-racing mind-set from Daytona on. And it's not that you're just going to ride around and be happy to finish fifth, but every point counts. You need to pass the guy in front of you. You need to try to win races. You've got to continue to have that attitude."
The guys down in the maelstrom have a pressing realization of that fact. Just 138 points separate fourth-place Kyle Busch and 11th-place Kasey Kahne, who is 90 behind Mark Martin for the final spot. A driver may gain or lose as many as 156 points against another driver who starts in the same race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., ninth in the standings, two points ahead of Martin, gave himself a margin for error heading to California Speedway (where he has three DNFs and an average finish of 21st in nine starts) by finishing third at Bristol.
"I feel a whole lot better now about trying to get in," he said. "I mean, from me and Kyle, it is (46) points, pretty tight. So I think all of us just really have got to watch what we are doing, minimize mistakes and utilize every ounce of practice that you get to tune on your car to try and get yourself the best opportunity in these next couple of races.
"I think we have a really good shot at it now. Before, it was 50-50 up for grabs between me and Kasey Kahne. But I feel like we are in a better position, obviously."
No one wants to rely on a finish at Richmond next weekend to earn a spot in the Chase. The 0.75-mile track is the epitome of short-track racing where mistakes can undo entire seasons. Kahne missed the Chase by 33 points when he finished 24th there in 2004. Kahne and Jamie McMurray (2005) are the only drivers to fall out of the Chase at Richmond since the playoff system began in 2004. Jeremy Mayfield (2004) and Ryan Newman (2005) are the only drivers to race in there.
Busch said making the Chase for the first time will be less stressful because unlike the first two years of the format, few outside the top 10 have realistic chances of making the cut. Greg Biffle is statistically viable in 12th, but 251 points behind Martin.
"There's definitely some pressure there, but there's probably not as much as maybe would have been in the past couple years," Busch said. "This year, we're only fighting Kasey Kahne, the only one out right now to get in for one of the ideal 10 spots. ... Right now what it is about is positioning yourself. You never know how much those five points coming down to Homestead will mean for you"
Busch's older brother, Kurt, beat Johnson by a series-record eight points in 2004. Tony Stewart beat Biffle and Carl Edwards by 35 points last season.
Veteran Jeff Burton gained two spots to seventh with a ninth-place finish at Bristol but he and his team were "disgusted" after a slow late pit stop undid a car that led 263 of 500 laps. A Burton win would have been worth 190 points. He earned 148 for ninth.
"There is something to be said for big-picture racing but we can't say that is why we finished where we finished," he said after the race. "We gained two positions back in the points, it beats the heck out of losing them, that is the silver lining in this. "
Kenseth declaring himself "definitely a contender" sounds almost egotistical coming from the reserved Wisconsinite, but consecutive wins and a runnerup finish in his last four races state his point even louder.
"In this business you've got to prove your worth each and every week," he said. "What you did the first 26 races is important, but it's not as important as what you're going to do the last 10. We're only seven points behind Jimmie. I would love to be able to lead the points going in. Of course it's only five points, but it's still five points."