Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a lock to make NASCAR’s 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup in early July. He even said so.
He had finished fifth at Chicagoland Speedway, climbed to third in the standings, and the baggage of a dismal 2005 season apparently was behind him. He had hit his stride with the return of Tony Eury Jr., his cousin and crew chief.
Then came an engine failure at New Hampshire, and a crash at Pocono. Consecutive 43rd-place finishes dropped Earnhardt from third in the standings to 11th.
In two races, he dropped 220 points.
In two races, he was on the outside, looking in.
And now, two races remain before NASCAR sets the field for its playoff chase. The first of them, the Sony HD 500, will be run Sunday at California Speedway. The second is set for Sept. 9 at Richmond International Raceway, a three-quarter-mile track where luck could mean as much as skill.
However, it’s in the drivers’ hands at California Speedway, the sister track of two-mile Michigan International Speedway. Doing well at one often means being on the right track for the other.
One of the best performers this season on the two-mile tracks has been Kasey Kahne, who is 11th in the standings and trails ninth-place Earnhardt by 92 points, 10th-place Mark Martin by 90.
California is “a racetrack where we can spread out,” said Denny Hamlin, who is sixth in the chase. “The good cars will go to the front, the not-so-great ones will go to the back.”
That’s not always the way it works, though. In the Auto Club 500 in February, engine failure eliminated the two best cars. Gregg Biffle’s Ford finished 42nd, after having led for 168 laps, and Tony Stewart’s Chevy was 43rd, after he’d led for 28 laps.
A faulty engine or similar bad luck for any of the Chase contender opens the door for Kahne. He made up 144 points on Earnhardt in July, despite finishing 31st at Pocono.
A win is worth 180 points, and there are five extra points available for leading the race, five more for leading the most laps. The fewest a driver in the field can score is 34, a 156-point swing. If they show up, all Chase contenders are guaranteed a spot on the starting grid.
Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver, missed the Chase last year and finished 19th. He has not done well at California Speedway, and in 2002 suffered the worst crash of his career.
There are two races remaining to determine whether the next 10 will matter.
1. Jimmie Johnson (leader, 3,499 points). The El Cajon driver has been the No. 1 driver for 16 consecutive races and is assured of a berth in the chase. He has not won a championship yet, but in four seasons he has finished second twice and fifth twice. He has won four times this season and has 18 top-10 finishes in 24 races. He won at California in 2002, and he has finished second three times.
2. Matt Kenseth (-7 to Johnson). The 2003 Cup champion, Kenseth also has clinched a spot in the Chase. He also won here in February, and this month at Michigan. Either he or Johnson will lead going into the Chase, with an assigned 5,050 points, and the other will trail by five points, the margin separating each subsequent driver.
3. Kevin Harvick (-321, 219 ahead of Kahne). The Bakersfield driver finished 14th the last two seasons, but figures to finish in the top 10 for the first time since finishing fifth in 2003. This has been a hit-or-miss track for Harvick. In his last five races here, he has finished ninth twice, and been 14th, 28th and 29th. He has had solid performances at Richmond.
4. Kyle Busch (-402, 138 ahead of Kahne). The second-year driver won this race last year and finished 10th in February. Another top-10 finish should guarantee that toothy smile gets plenty of airplay the rest of the season.
5. Jeff Gordon (-408, 132 ahead of Kahne). Gordon has won three of the 12 Cup races at California Speedway but hasn’t finished better than 13th since his 2003 victory. He finished second and eighth at Michigan, and should be near the front this weekend.
6. Denny Hamlin (-429, 111 ahead of Kahne). Hamlin could be the first rookie to qualify for the Chase in the three-year history of this format. His worst finish at California, Michigan or Richmond thus far is 12th. If he maintains that consistency -- he took second this season at Richmond -- he should be fine.
7. Jeff Burton (-435, 105 ahead of Kahne). In his first season in a Jack Roush Ford, Burton will probably have a top-15 car this weekend. He finished fifth here in February, 11th in the first Michigan race and sat on the pole in the second -- but finished 42nd with an engine failure.
8. Tony Stewart (-443, 97 ahead of Kahne). Along with Biffle, had the car to beat in February when a blown engine dropped him to 43. He has had only one finish better than 16th in his last five races at the speedway but has done very well at Richmond. If someone hopes to make a move on the two-time champion, this is the weekend to do it.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-448, 92 ahead of Kahne). Junior may be Hollywood, but he is definitely not Fontana; California Speedway is one of his worst tracks. Over the last two Labor Day weekends, Earnhardt has finished 38th and 34th. Since finishing sixth in 2003, Earnhardt has finished better than 19th there only once, running 11th in February. Junior has been strong at Michigan this season, though, so his luck may be changing.
10. Mark Martin (-450, 90 ahead of Kahne). A fairy-tale finish would have Martin qualifying for the Chase and winning his first championship in the last of his 24 seasons. Over the last three years at California and Michigan, covering 10 races, he has finished no worse than 15th.
11. Kasey Kahne (-540, 90 behind Martin). Kahne has won four races, tying him with Johnson and Kenseth in that department, and has done well on two-mile tracks, with recent finishes of fourth, first, fourth and sixth. He has been hurt recently by a couple of last-lap crashes. Realistically, he needs a top-five finish here, where he knows he’s strong and can control his own destiny. He won’t have that same advantage at Richmond. If Kahne wins and leads the most laps, he could possibly catch Earnhardt or Martin.
12. Greg Biffle (-701, 251 behind Martin). After a 19th-place finish at Bristol, Biffle declared, “We’re not making the Chase.” He may be right. He is further from Martin than Kahne is from third-place Harvick. A Roush driver, he can still have an effect on the Chase: He led the most laps at California in February before an engine failure, and any points he can take away from the other chasers will benefit Martin and Burton.
13. Carl Edwards (-711, 261 behind Martin). Edwards too realizes that it will take a near miracle for him to catch teammate Martin.
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Nextel Cup Chase
Drivers still in contention for the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship. After the next two races, drivers in the Nextel Cup standings top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader will earn a berth in the Chase for the Championship:
No. Driver; Points; Behind; Starts; Poles; Wins; Top 5; Top 10; Earnings
1. JIMMIE JOHNSON; 3,499; -- ; 24; 1; 4; 8; 18; $6,793,460
2. MATT KENSETH; 3,492; -7; 24; 0; 4; 13; 14; $4,948,400
3. KEVIN HARVICK; 3,178; -321; 24; 0; 2; 10; 13; $4,200,000
4. KYLE BUSCH; 3,097; -402; 24; 1; 1; 8; 13; $3,470,670
5. JEFF GORDON; 3,091; -408; 24; 0; 2; 9; 11; $4,243,920
6. DENNY HAMLIN; 3,070; -429; 24; 2; 2; 4; 12; $3,103,350
7. JEFF BURTON; 3,064; -435; 24; 4; 0; 4; 14; $3,446,960
8. TONY STEWART; 3,056; -443; 24; 0; 2; 10; 13; $4,796,150
9. DALE EARNHARDT JR.; 3,051; -448; 24; 0; 1; 7; 11; $3,791,790
10. MARK MARTIN; 3,049; -450; 24; 0; 0; 5; 11; $3,026,650
11. KASEY KAHNE; 2,959; -540; 24; 4; 4; 7; 12; $4,257,280
12. GREG BIFFLE; 2,798; -701; 24; 2; 1; 5; 11; $3,150,380
13. CARL EDWARDS; 2,788; -711; 24; 0; 0; 7; 12; $3,205,650
Nextel Cup Series results, schedule:
*--* DATE RACE WINNER Feb. 19 Daytona 500 Jimmie Johnson Feb. 26 Auto Club 500 Matt Kenseth March 12 UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 Jimmie Johnson March 20 Golden Corral 500 Kasey Kahne March 26 Food City 500 Kurt Busch April 2 DIRECTV 500 Tony Stewart April 9 Samsung/RadioShack 500 Kasey Kahne April 22 Subway Fresh 500 Kevin Harvick May 1 Aaron’s 499 Jimmie Johnson May 6 Crown Royal 400 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. May 13 Dodger Charger 500 Greg Biffle May 28 Coca-Cola 600 Kasey Kahne June 4 Neighborhood Excellence 400 Matt Kenseth June 11 Pocono 500 Denny Hamlin June 18 3M Performance 400 Kasey Kahne June 25 Dodge/Save Mart 350 Jeff Gordon July 1 Pepsi 400 Tony Stewart July 9 USG Sheetrock 400 Jeff Gordon July 16 New England 300 Kyle Busch July 23 Pennsylvania 500 Denny Hamlin Aug. 6 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard Jimmie Johnson Aug. 13 AMD at the Glen Kevin Harvick Aug. 20 GFS Marketplace 400 Matt Kenseth Aug. 26 Sharpie 500 Matt Kenseth
*--* DATE RACE SITE Sept. 3 Sony HD 500 Fontana Sept. 9 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 Richmond, Va. Sept. 17 Sylvania 300 Loudon, N.H. Sept. 24 Dover 400 Dover, Del. Oct. 1 Banquet 400 Kansas City, Kan. Oct. 8 UAW-Ford 500 Talladega, Ala. Oct. 14 Bank of America 500 Concord, N.C. Oct. 22 Subway 500 Martinsville, Va. Oct. 29 Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 Hampton, Ga. Nov. 5 Dickies 500 Fort Worth, Texas Nov. 12 Checker Auto Parts 500 Avondale, Ariz. Nov. 19 Ford 400 Homestead, Fla.