Archive for Thursday, July 26, 2007

Racing the clock

Few chances remain for drivers on the cusp

July 26, 2007


Time is running out.

Yes, only 19 of 36 Nextel Cup Series races have been completed thus far, but the race to make the field for the Chase is on a much tighter schedule.

The field of 12 drivers competing for the series championship gets officially set following the season's 26th race, Sept. 8 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. However, the point spread among the drivers near the cutoff shows little wiggle room with seven races left to set the Chase field.

Entering Sunday's Allstate 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and defending race winner Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers with multiple wins this season (each has four).

Eight drivers - Gordon, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer - have 10 or more top-10 finishes in 19 races. Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only two of the current top 12 in points that have yet to win at least one race.

It's no surprise then that Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr. are among those in the most danger of falling out of the top 12, while those knocking on the door to replace them include two drivers - Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears - that have won races this season.

Earnhardt Jr. currently holds the 12th and final position. He is 30 points ahead of Ryan Newman and 77 ahead of Newman's Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch.

"We're in good shape for the Chase," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Even if we were outside the cutoff, I'd still have a lot of confidence in my team that we'd make it."

Last year, Earnhardt Jr. entered the Indy race just outside the cutoff (which was then 10th place). His crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., made a gutsy call late in the race to leave Earnhardt Jr. on the track rather than pit and he ended up with a sixth-place finish.

"It may have been the most important single decision last year to get us into the Chase," Earnhardt Jr. said.

The Penske organization has made tremendous gains in the past two months and either driver - or possibly both - can still make up the points difference to crack the top 12.

It will be more difficult for Mears, but considering the ground he has made up since his win in May at Lowe's Motor Speedway, anything is possible.

He was 35th in points entering that race and now sits 17th and 230 behind Earnhardt Jr.

"Winning definitely boosted our confidence and took a little weight off our shoulders," Mears said. "But the team itself has created the momentum. We've really been hitting our stride and I feel things are gelling on a lot of different levels.

"We dug ourselves a pretty big hole in the beginning of the year. I think we still have a shot at the Chase - even if it's a long one."


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