The scramble is on to make NASCAR's Chase.
Only three races remain before the start of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, stock car racing's 10-race playoff to determine the series champion.
The top 12 drivers in points qualify for the Chase. And though the current eight points leaders look comfortably eligible -- starting with first-place Tony Stewart, who clinched a berth Sunday -- a fierce battle remains among seven or eight other drivers to make the late-season playoff.
"It wasn't an ideal day by any means," Newman said but added, "We're not going to get down, and we're going to fight for a spot in the Chase for the championship."
The three races left in NASCAR's "regular season": Bristol, Tenn., on Saturday night, then Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 6 and, finally, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Sept. 12.
The Chase gets underway Sept. 20 at New Hampshire International Speedway, and the playoff, which includes the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 11, ends in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 22.
The current top 12 drivers include several who were expected to vie for the title when the season started.
They include four-time champion Jeff Gordon (currently second in points); Jimmie Johnson (third), the reigning and three-time champion and Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports; and Carl Edwards (fourth) of Roush Fenway Racing.
But there also are surprises, starting with Stewart, a two-time champion who left the comfort of Joe Gibbs Racing and this year took over as an owner-driver of his team. In spite of predictions that Stewart, 38, would struggle with his newly branded Stewart-Haas Racing, he has won three times in his No. 14 Chevrolet and holds a commanding 284-point lead over Gordon.
Then there's Juan Pablo Montoya, the former open-wheel racing star who initially struggled after migrating to NASCAR last year. The Colombian hasn't won yet this season, but he has 11 top-10 finishes and sits seventh in the standings, poised to make the Chase. Mark Martin also surprised many by winning a series-high four races this year at age 50. But Martin, who came out of semi-retirement this year to try yet again to win his first championship -- four times he has finished second to the title winner in his long career -- sits in a precarious spot.
After Martin's Chevy ran out of fuel to leave him 31st at Michigan, Martin now finds himself on the Chase bubble, 12th in the standings.
Vickers too would be a surprise if he makes the top 12. Although widely considered a capable driver, his win Sunday -- the first for the Red Bull Racing Toyota team -- was only the second victory in his six-year Cup career. "Hopefully we can take this momentum and carry it into the Chase, go get in the Chase, go race for a championship," Vickers said.
But perhaps the biggest shock of all is Kyle Busch, NASCAR's bad boy who rolled into 2009 having won eight times last year in his Gibbs Toyota. Busch, 24, picked up three more wins earlier this season but then slumped badly starting at Chicagoland Speedway in July, when he finished 33rd. Busch is 15th in the standings, 70 points behind Martin's 12th-place spot and in danger of missing the Chase.
But don't count Busch out just yet. Drivers have climbed more than 70 points in three races before to join the Chase, including Matt Kenseth in 2005. And Busch has a strong record at the next three tracks on the schedule, including wins at each venue.
There's one other curiosity heading into this year's Chase: Edwards, who won a series-high nine races last year, has yet to reach Victory Lane this season.
But Edwards knows that the priority is making the Chase, which is why he wasn't complaining after his fourth-place finish Sunday at Michigan. "We were here to win the race," he said, "but that's a great points day, and that's what's important right now."
Finally, the Chase yet again will be without NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Rick Hendrick changed his crew chief in midseason, but Earnhardt has continued to labor and is 21st in points, although he ran well at Michigan to finish third.
Earnhardt's last win came at Michigan in June 2008, so he has now gone 44 races without a victory. And he had a 76-race winless streak before that Michigan win.
So Earnhardt has had one trip to Victory Lane in 121 races.
Earnhardt is the first to acknowledge that it has been frustrating for him and his legion of fans, but after Sunday's race, he said, "We're getting better as a team. It's just really, really hard to be patient."
And he'll have to wait patiently to take another shot at the Chase in hopes of winning his first championship -- in 2010.