Final jockeying on tap for Nextel Chase spots

Richmond race tomorrow ends seven-month lead-up to Cup's 10-race main act

Auto Racing

September 10, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Seven months and 25 races have brought the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series to the apex of its regular season. Tomorrow night at Richmond International Speedway, the field will be set for the final 10-race run to the Nextel Cup Championship.

"When NASCAR first came out with this, I thought it was pretty neat because, well, you just didn't know how it was going to work out," said Jeremy Mayfield, who drives the No. 19 Dodge for Ray Evernham and is in 14th place, 55 points out of 10th.

"But now, I love it ... and I think it's going to take a guy like [me], who's able to get back into the top 10 and be there in the end, a chance to win the championship.

"I mean, it's all about consistency, yeah, but you've still got to be fast, you've still got to get in the top 10 and you've still got to earn what you earn in those last 10 races."

NASCAR's new system provides for the top 10 and all others within 400 points of the leader to make the field for what is virtually a 10-race postseason playoff called the Chase to the NASCAR Nextel Cup.

After the standings are set with the results of the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 tomorrow, the points totals of the Chase qualifiers will be reconfigured, with five points separating each position - meaning if you're like current 10th-place driver Mark Martin, who is 424 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, you will suddenly find yourself just 45 points back going into the final 10 races of the season.

Once the points are converted, the drivers in the Chase will earn points each week just as they have through the regular season, as will the rest of the drivers who aren't in the Chase.

At this point, five drivers have clinched postseason spots - Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. Current sixth-place driver Elliott Sadler will clinch just by starting tomorrow night's race.

There are five drivers within 56 points of 10th place. And there are just 76 points separating positions eight through 15.

The regular season has been so closely contested, up to eight positions have been swapped after just one race.

Last weekend at California Speedway, rookie Kasey Kahne pushed his way to the ninth spot, making him the only rookie among current qualifiers. And veteran Martin, who had not been in the top 10 all season, climbed to No. 10.

"The last month and a half, I've been nervous," said Kahne, who drives a Dodge for Evernham. "I lost a lot of points at Chicago, and since then I've been trying to figure out how to finish, have good finishes and not lose points.

"I do wish Richmond was over and we were locked in, but even if we're not in the top 10, I'm definitely looking forward to the final 10 races. There are six or seven tracks there where we run well."

Johnson holds a 449-point lead over 11th-place Jamie McMurray, but those 49 points (the cutoff being 400) could disappear in a hurry if Johnson runs into trouble in the close quarters of Richmond's three-quarter-mile track.

"This has been great drama all summer long," said Alan Bestwick, TNT race broadcast host. "Every time someone seems to get on a roll, something happens. I don't think we'll know who is going to be in the Chase until the final corner of the final lap."

The margins are so close they can be made up in this final qualifying race. It is a situation familiar to other sports fans, but new to NASCAR.

Which is well and good, unless perhaps you're one of the top two or three drivers.

"I think the shootout is going to be exciting," said Gordon, who is working on his fifth title.

"But I think it needs to be spread out between all the points. I think the top one, two, three, four drivers, who have been at the top all season long, have earned their positions and to take it all away isn't right.

"Maybe the margin between each guy should be 10 or 15 points, so the guy who just makes it ... still has a chance to win the title, but he still has to work and do everything right. The way it is now, if the top one, two, three, four drivers do anything wrong, the 10th guy is right there on top of them."

Benny Parsons, the 1973 Cup champion, who will be providing the commentary on tomorrow's TNT broadcast, shrugged off Gordon's complaint.

"I don't have any problem with the five points," said Parsons. "No other sport protects its leader going into the playoffs, not even if their football team is 16-0."

At a glance

What: Chevy Rock and Roll 400; NASCAR Nextel Cup race

Site: Richmond (Va.) International Raceway

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

TV: TNT

Fast fact: The 26th of 36 NASCAR Nextel Cup races, it is the last race to decide qualifiers for a final, 10-race chase to the series championship.

Points standings

1. Jimmie Johnson 3,482

2. Jeff Gordon 3,432

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,366

4. Tony Stewart 3,304

5. Matt Kenseth 3,253

6. Elliott Sadler 3,204

7. Kurt Busch 3,186

8. Ryan Newman 3,078

9. Kasey Kahne 3,067

10. Mark Martin 3,058

11. Jamie McMurray 3,033

12. Bobby Labonte 3,022

13. Dale Jarrett 3,015

14. Jeremy Mayfield 3,003

15. Kevin Harvick 3,002

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