Race for the Chase is on
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
DAYTONA BEACH - The pressure is on for the handful of drivers logjammed near the cutoff to make the Chase for the championship, where only the top 10 in points will qualify to run for the Nextel Cup title.
The race to make the title hunt begins at Daytona International Speedway with tonight's Pepsi 400, the first in a frantic 10-race push that will determine who will be a player on NASCAR's biggest stage.
With only 89 points separating sixth through 10th place, and a handful of drivers within striking distance of a coveted playoff position, anything can happen during this upcoming stretch through the dog days of summer.
"It's tough, and I've felt the pressure now for weeks," said Greg Biffle, who currently sits in ninth - a race win out of fifth, but also 31 points out of 11th.
"But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm just going to concentrate and try to get a top-five finish every week and try to win races."
Jeff Gordon used that philosophy last week on the road course in California. He went into the race 11th in the standings, won the race and catapulted to eighth. That kind of movement should be expected from now until the Chase field is set following the Sept. 9 race in Richmond, Va.
The first shakeup could come tonight at Daytona, an unpredictable restrictor-plate race that could wreak havoc on the standings. Nothing is a given here and a driver can go from first to 30th in the span of a single lap. No one is immune from the multi-car crashes that can wipe out half the field, or the split-second wrong decision that can shuffle a driver to the back of the field.
Not even points leader Jimmie Johnson, winner of the Daytona 500 and the plate race at Talladega, thinks he is immune.
"There are just too many variables in our sport," he said. "I feel like I'm in a great position. But if you hit three or four races where you're crashed out early - and we all know about plate racing - you can find yourself in trouble in a hurry."
Boris Said won the pole in Friday qualifying, running a lap at 186.143 mph to claim the top starting spot for the first time since 2003. Said, a road-racing specialist, won the only other pole of his career at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
Defending race champion Tony Stewart will start second, and will be followed by rookie David Stremme, Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek, rookie Denny Hamlin, Dale Jarrett, rookie Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
Stewart will be looking to regain some momentum with a strong run tonight. He led all but nine laps en route to a dominating victory last season.
Stewart, the two-time Cup champion, has been sliding backward in the standings since breaking his shoulder blade in an accident five weeks ago. He's finished 42nd, 25th, third, 41st and 28th the past five weeks, and dropped from fourth to seventh in the standings.
A lock to make the Chase a month ago, Stewart is only 67 points away from being bounced out of the top 10.
"We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to run well," he said. "We need a good week. The good thing is that the morale of the team is up. This team has battled adversity so many times that it takes a lot to beat this team down."
Many drivers sitting outside the top 10 will look to Kenseth's frantic race into the Chase last year as a model for making it. After a miserable start to the season, Kenseth vaulted from 20th to 11th in the standings in the span of about a month last August and continued the push to claim the ninth spot in the Chase.
Kurt Busch, who currently sits in 14th in the standings, has familiarized himself with Kenseth's 2005 march and is using it to remain calm about his current predicament. Winner of the first Chase, Busch is currently 165 points out of the top 10.
"There is no pressure to do things quick," Busch said. "I think Kenseth, even after the second Pocono (20th race) was still struggling, and he put it together. I don't know if that is the cutoff where you start to feel nervous if you are in or you are out.
"But we feel like we have a bunch of good guys in front of us, a bunch of good guys behind us, so why don't we just go do our jobs and not worry about it?"
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