NASCAR Race For The Chase - Only Four Races Left

Only four races left before NASCAR playoffs

<!-- end pagetitle --><!-- begin bylinebox -->By Rupen Fofaria
Special to

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<!-- begin text11 div --><TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD vAlign=top><!-- begin leftcol --><!-- template inline -->Like a restart with 10 laps to go, everyone with a shot at the top 10 is scrambling. Except here, it's not about just one race. It's about a shot at the championship.

Only four races remain for the half-dozen drivers fighting for a spot in the NASCAR Nextel Cup's playoffs, which take place following the Sept. 10 race at Richmond International Raceway.

While drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler and Carl Edwards finished well enough Sunday at the Watkins Glen road course to keep their hopes alive, others such as Ryan Newman and Dale Jarrett have reason to be concerned.

Following Sunday's event, only 123 points separate Newman, eighth in the standings, and Kevin Harvick, ranked 14th. A 76-point margin separates ninth-place McMurray from Harvick. So with every race, every lap and every pit stop, drivers, crew members, team owners and fans hold their breath, waiting to see who will advance to the 10-race playoff.

"This is the excitement NASCAR wanted to build," said Jimmie Johnson, securely in second place in the points standings, 105 points behind leader Tony Stewart, who won his second straight race Sunday.

For Jarrett, Sunday's poor finish resulted in worry and frustration. Jarrett had a top-10 car, but contact with the No. 8 Chevy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent Jarrett home in 22nd, dropping him to 12th in the standings.

Afterward, Earnhardt was more vocal about the incident than Jarrett.

"I'm just real disappointed I got into Dale Jarrett in the race there, spun him around, he got in the wall," said Junior, who was more upset about wrecking Jarrett than happy about finishing 10th and maintaining hope of crawling back into contention. "That's bothering me right now more than anything, because we're pretty good friends. It's hard going out there and racing people you've got so much respect for. I should've been thinking about that when he was in front of me, I guess."

Jarrett's slip to 12th doesn't dash his playoff hopes as he's only three points out of 10th.

That's also exactly how far back from 10th his teammate, Sadler, sits. For Sadler, you'd think it would be crushing to be so low. After all, it was only seven races ago that Sadler ranked third. But that's exactly why the driver of the No. 38 Ford was so happy with his 12th-place finish at Watkins Glen and 11th-place position in the points standings -- he was just relieved that the freefall down the rankings halted for at least one week.

"To come here and finish 12th is a great finish for us," Sadler said. "We had about a fourth- or fifth-place car, but me going to the rear of the field, blowing a motor, coming back through, I'll take it. I was waiting for the bottom to fall out or something to happen with 10 laps to go, I just kept waiting for something bad to happen, but it never did. To finish 12th, it's a great finish for us. It didn't put us in the top 10, but it gets us closer to it."

What's most daunting for Sadler and Jarrett in their attempt to make the Chase is not the three points they need to cover. It's the driver sitting right behind them in the standings: Gordon, a four-time champion.

Gordon has not been dominant this year. In fact, it's been his worst season since his rookie campaign. Still, he's a championship driver, with a championship team, who salvaged 14th place Sunday after cutting a tire and having to pit out of turn. Nobody on the No. 24 team was happy about that, but it was a feat for any team to accomplish and Gordon and Co.'s displeasure over it only goes to show how determined they are.

"What good does it do to be impressive if you're passing the most cars coming from the back every time and you still get to 14th," Gordon said. "We're not living up to our full potential. We should have been in the top two or three today. And we're not doing it. That's why we are where we're at in the points.

"It was just unfortunate we had that flat left front. That just did it to us again. It just doesn't seem like it's meant to be. We just can't seem to get things to go our way."

Gordon has 67 points to cover in four races if he wants to make the Chase -- and that will require stronger efforts than his team has been consistently able to muster, and it also will take some poor finishes from the drivers ahead of him.

"We're not going to give up until mathematically we don't have a chance," he said. "But I think as good a car as we had today -- we led a lap -- and knowing how good we could have been, this would have been a big day for us. I don't want to go into Richmond just having to win the race. That's a lot to ask for and a lot of pressure. We're a great team and we deserve to be up there further than we are, but we need to have everything going our way to do it."

A measure of just how well things need to go: McMurray and Edwards finished 13th and 19th, respectively, Sunday and are ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in the standings. Had Gordon pulled out a top-five, he'd be in prime position. Now, he needs drivers like McMurray and Edwards to finish outside the top 15, preferably outside the top 20, while he finishes with the leaders.

For McMurray and Edwards, that's good news. But with Sadler and Jarrett hanging around, there's still no room to exhale. Nevertheless, McMurray and Edwards were happy to scrape by Sunday.

"We did what we had to do today," Edwards said. "I'm not very good here yet. I'm learning a lot. I didn't break the transmission, didn't run off the race course and finished 19th. That could have been a lot worse, so I'm satisfied with that."

Said McMurray: "We moved up to ninth in the standings, but I'm trying not to pay too much attention to that. I worried myself about it last year, but we're just going to do the best we can and see where we end up after four more races."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to He can be reached at [email protected].

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