Even three “lucky dogs” couldn’t get NASCAR’s most popular driver back in the hunt for the Nextel Cup’s “Chase for the Championship.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., lapped three times by Matt Kenseth after starting from the last row in the Sharpie’s 500 last Saturday night in the bandbox at Bristol, Tenn., had the good fortune of getting his lap back each time, thanks to NASCAR’s rule that the highest-scored car not on the lead lap gets a free move up after a caution flag.
Still, Earnhardt was able to finish no better than ninth and finds himself 117 points behind the 10th-driver cutoff in the Chase.
With two races remaining, that is not an unsurmountable deficit. Still, considering that California Speedway, where Earnhardt will be racing Sunday in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet in the Sony HD 500, is not one of his favorite tracks. ...
The race is No. 25 on the qualifying list to determine which 10 drivers will compete for the $5-million Nextel Cup championship. After next week’s race at Richmond International Speedway in Virginia, only the top 10 will be eligible.
If Little E is not among the favored 10, he won’t be wearing the crown his father wore seven times, even if he wins the remaining 10 races. But that won’t keep his legion of followers from screaming “EEEEEEE!” and waving red No. 8 flags every time he passes another car. Even if it’s for 29th place.
The kid from Kannapolis, N.C., will be 31 next month, has won only one race and no poles this year, and has never finished higher than third in the Cup standings, but he is a runaway leader in voting for NASCAR’s most-popular-driver award.
One reason may be his rather cavalier approach to racing. Asked if he was concerned about his position in the standings, he said, “No, I’m having fun driving these race cars, and that’s all I think about. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole, so I’m just going to keep driving and have a good time doing it.”
Earnhardt’s popularity has prompted some writers and talk-show callers to suggest that he be seeded into the Chase, somehow given a wild-card spot based on popularity. The idea did not sit well with Brian France, the NASCAR leader who was responsible for changing the championship format from a 36-race point total to the 10-driver, 10-race end-of-season shootout.
“Zero [possibility] because this is a performance-based sport and you’ve got to perform to get in it,” NASCAR’s chief executive said. “Our drivers wouldn’t want that anyway. They want to earn it. That’s how it is, and the best drivers this year will earn it and then if you don’t, you’ve got to go to next year.”
If Earnhardt had a rival for most popular driver, it would be Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion with the movie-star looks who raced his DuPont Chevrolet back into championship contention last weekend with a sixth-place finish that vaulted him into the top 10 for the first time in two months -- but just barely. He is 10th but only 11 points ahead of Kenseth, Cup champion in 2003.
“I don’t know what to think, the way our season’s gone. No matter how good we’re running, no matter how bad, you just never know what’s going to happen,” said the usually optimistic Gordon of his hopes in the next two pivotal races.
Unlike Earnhardt, Gordon has had remarkable success at California Speedway, starting with winning the inaugural California 500 in 1997. He won two more after that, in 1998 and 2004, a race in which he finished a track-record 12.81 seconds ahead of runner-up and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon has also led the most laps in Cup races at Fontana, 412.
That is quite a contrast with Earnhardt, who in seven starts has led only one lap, has only one top-five finish -- third in 2001 -- and two top 10s.
“It’s a cool place, but our performances haven’t been anything to write home about, so it’s not one of my favorites,” Earnhardt said of the two-mile D-shaped oval in Fontana. “I’ve had some pretty freaky and pretty hard crashes there in the past, but the car always seems to be fast.
“We had a brutal time there last February. I still have nightmares about blowing out three left-fronts [tires] in one race. That was frustrating.”
Earnhardt, however, is taking some encouragement from the Michigan race two weeks ago, even though he finished 18th. California is almost a mirror image of the Michigan track.
“I think our Michigan race was a pretty good indicator that we’ve made steps in the right direction,” he said. “We raced our way into the top 10 but had to pit with five or six [laps] to go. I was happy with the way the car drove, and we’re taking the same car to Fontana. Those mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks have been the ones that have given us the most trouble.
“A lot of that has to do with our struggles with the new tire. It just took us a lot longer to figure it out than most.”
How serious is Earnhardt about the Fontana race? On his way to California, he will spend Wednesday at Texas Motor Speedway working with the Fort Worth police department in “advanced training” for high-speed chases.
Tony Stewart, Johnson and Greg Biffle, who won the February race at California Speedway, have clinched spots in the Chase and can work on their car setups with thoughts of the final 10 races without worrying about where they finish. All of the top 10 will start the Chase with clean slates, only five points separating each driver.
“I’ll tell you the same thing we told everybody from day one,” said Stewart, who always seems irritated when asked about the year-old point structure. “We take each race one at a time. We just try to get the most ... points and the best finish we can get each week. If you win races, the points take care of [themselves].”
By winning three of five races in a late-season spurt, Stewart took the lead from Johnson after his dramatic victory in the Allstate 400 at the Indianapolis Speedway. He won the Cup in 2003 under the old system and placed sixth under the new one last year.
Rusty Wallace, who with Mark Martin is making his final appearance in a Nextel Cup race at Fontana, will clinch a berth in the Chase by merely starting Sunday’s race. Martin can assure himself a shot at his first championship -- he has been runner-up four times -- by finishing fifth or better.
Both old-timers -- Wallace is 49, Martin 46 -- have won at California Speedway, Wallace in 2001 and Martin in 1998.
Beyond that, the races at Fontana and Richmond take on great significance for the next grouping. Making the top 10 can satisfy the toughest owner and soothe the feelings of the richest sponsor. Failing to make it can mean “wait till next year,” and 10 races are nearly a third of the season, a long time to wait.
Jeremy Mayfield, Kurt Busch, last year’s champion, and rookie Carl Edwards have mathematical chances of clinching spots Sunday. At least two berths will be determined in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond.
The last two in the top 10 are Ryan Newman and Gordon. Kenseth, runaway winner of last Saturday’s Bristol race, is 11th, a point ahead of 12th-place Jamie McMurray. Elliott Sadler, last year’s Fontana winner, is 13th, 34 points behind Gordon. And still in the hunt are Dale Jarrett, whose uncharacteristic temper tantrum cost him, Newman and Kevin Harvick valuable points at Bristol.
Newman nudged the rear end of Jarrett’s car early in the race and later, when Jarrett found himself alongside Newman, he rammed the nose of his car into Newman’s, sending both of them spinning on the track. Close behind was Harvick, and he had no chance to avoid Newman.
Harvick, the innocent victim, finished 37th, which left him 139 points shy of 10th place in the standings.
“Mine was unintentional and his was intentional, and that’s all I’m saying,” Newman said of the incident. “NASCAR can do what they want with it. By no means did I purposely wreck Dale Jarrett. I was surprised and shocked when he later ran into us. I wasn’t expecting it.”
Jarrett was penalized two laps on the spot and probably will be suspended and fined this week. He is 14th, 117 points behind Gordon, five points ahead of Earnhardt.
Kenseth, who had not won since March 2004, was thought to be out of contention until he finished third at Michigan and first at Bristol.
“This team really has a lot of momentum now,” he said. “I’m looking forward to heading back to California. We had a good run there early in the year. We ran in the top 10 for much of the day before we cut a tire late in the race.”
If Kenseth makes the Chase, car owner Jack Roush could have half the field. Biffle, Martin, Busch and Edwards also drive his Fords.
Technically still in the running are Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers and Jeff Burton, who made a big move with a second-place finish at Bristol, but the odds against their catching up are astronomical.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘Chase for the Championship’
Jeff Gordon is in 10th place and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 15th in the Nextel Cup standings heading into Sunday’s race at California Speedway. All drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader will earn berths in the championship chase:
*--* 1. Tony Stewart 3,410 2. Jimmie Johnson 3,197 3. Greg Biffle 3,186 4. Rusty Wallace 3,139 5. Mark Martin 3,014 6. Jeremy Mayfield 2,983 7. Kurt Busch 2,982 8. Carl Edwards 2,849 9. Ryan Newman 2,819 10. Jeff Gordon 2,799 11. Matt Kenseth 2,788 12. Jamie McMurray 2,787 13. Elliott Sadler 2,765 14. Dale Jarrett 2,721 15. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,682 16. Kevin Harvick 2,677
Note: All drivers in the championship chase will have their point totals adjusted. The first-place driver in the standings will begin the chase with 5,050 points; the second-place driver will start with 5,045, etc. Incremental five-point drops will continue through the list of title contenders.