For those out of Cup's inner circle, it's not same

Non-Chase drivers give themselves pep talks

Auto Racing

September 26, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- "The Chase" is on for the Nextel Cup championship, but for those outside the top 10, some of the thrill is gone.

In other years, the situation might have been much the same. Certainly, no one outside even the top five rallied for the title over the final 10 races, but somehow that doesn't matter.

The bottom line is that in the new NASCAR system, there isn't the slightest chance for a miracle. Not even a little one like Tony Stewart pulled off last season, rallying from 11th to seventh over the final 10 races.

And unlike other pro sports in which teams that fail to qualify for the postseason stay home to cry in private, in Cup racing, everyone continues on. The only difference is that, drivers such as Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett have no chance. Their elevator stops at the 11th floor.

Right now, it is McMurray who has the best seat of those outside the top 10. He's in 11th place. He was the guy who just missed the postseason cutoff. Now, if he can remain 11th, he's looking at a $1 million paycheck and a seat in the ballroom in New York for the championship awards banquet.

First Loser, someone called it.

McMurray leaned against a tire in the tight confines of the Dover garage area and shrugged.

"OK, it's not first," he said. "And, OK, I was the first guy not to make The Chase. But the system did make it exciting going into Richmond, to see who would make The Chase and, right now, I'm getting more attention trying to hold on to 11th than 11th got in the past. A year ago, no one paid any attention to who was No. 11.

"And, it would be cool to score the most points of any driver out here over the last 10 or nine races. Our team could do that. Everything is going our way."

Currently, there are five drivers within 149 points of 11th place. Labonte is one of them but, if he scores more points than drivers in The Chase, he will not think it's cool.

"We want to finish 11th," said Labonte, who will start sixth today in the MBNA America 400 at Dover International Speedway. "But if we run well enough that we would have finished eighth in points under the previous system, we won't feel very good."

There are concerns up and down the starting grid.

In the top 10, Ryan Newman, who was 416 points behind the leader after the Richmond race two weeks ago, is happy to be in The Chase but he is worried, too.

He went from having no chance at the title to being within 45 points of then-leader Jeff Gordon because he was 10th in points.

"NASCAR is trying to make it more competitive with the top 10 drivers in the last 10 races," said Newman. "In my instance, I think I was 400 and something out in 10th. ... It's like a dog being that much closer to the bone. If he can reach out and grab it with his teeth, he will.

"I think all the teams are kind of like that. If you give them just that much more opportunity, they might take a little bit extra risk to get that. I don't feel I drive that way or our team races that way or anything, but I know there's a couple of teams out there that probably will.

"That's why I said NASCAR opened the door ... to rougher-type racing ... because they gave teams an opportunity that didn't deserve that opportunity."

In 14th, Labonte is worried about regaining some confidence for himself and his team.

"That's my first top-10 qualifying spot in five races," Labonte said. "My feeling about the whole thing is if you're fifth in points or 25th in points and you're not running good, it doesn't make any difference.

"We wanted to be first, but we didn't make the cut. Begging won't help. Paying someone money won't help. It's a done deal. Now we want to be 11th, because that's the best we're allowed to do.

"But the bottom line is that no matter where we might be in the standings, we want to finish the year strong so we can start strong next season. Right now, we need a top-10 run to feel better about ourselves."

Labonte's brother, Terry, is 23rd in the points chase. As he sees it, he has no worries. Winning? Yes, he wants to win, "but that's part of the job every day. I don't consider that a special concern." Avoiding aggressive drivers? Yes, he wants to do that, "but there are always aggressive drivers."

"The one concern I see would be if I'm an owner," he said. "I'd be concerned sponsors would want to sponsor just the first 26 races and then, if you make The Chase, they might agree to give you more funding.

"You look around the garage now and already you see a lot of sponsors who don't finance the entire season -- sharing sponsorships, sponsoring 10 or 15 races. If I was an owner, that would be my concern."

And way back in 30th place, Jeff Green, who is 2,949 points behind series leaders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch, said even running for 11th is so far out of reach it is irrelevant .

"For us, the battle is to just get our equipment more competitive," he said. "We want to improve so we won't be in this position next season."

MBNA America 400

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