Richmond II: Round 26 preview

Richmond II: Round 26 preview
Sep 8, 2005, 12:16 AM

Four "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" spots to be claimed; 10 drivers in contention * Four-time champion Gordon in 12th place, trying for 11th-hour rally DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Sept. 6, 2005) -- Simply, it has come down to this: • Four berths ...

Four "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" spots to be claimed; 10 drivers in contention

* Four-time champion Gordon in 12th place, trying for 11th-hour rally

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Sept. 6, 2005) -- Simply, it has come down to this:

• Four berths in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup remain to be decided Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

• Ten drivers remain in contention.

It is a recipe for excitement -- for the second-straight year at RIR, site of the impending Chevy Rock & Roll 400, the final event in the "Race to the Chase." Last year, Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) literally raced his way into the Chase by winning the 400. It was NASCAR's equivalent to the game-winning field goal or bottom-of-the-ninth home run. This year, those drivers still alive will be striving for similar heroics.

The top 10 drivers in the point standings qualify for the Chase. After Richmond, those drivers will have their point totals adjusted; the top driver will start with 5,050 and the 10th will have 5,005. The season's final 10 races will determine the series champion.

The top six drivers in the points have secured Chase berths. After that, the pressure is on, starting with seventh-place Mayfield, who must finish 39th or better to make the Chase, eighth-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford) and ninth-place Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford).

Then comes the driver with the bulls-eye on his back. Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge) stands 10th in the points, 85 behind Edwards and 10 behind Kenseth. In the other direction, it's similar close-quarters: Drivers in positions 11-16 cover a total deficit of only 135 points. Eleventh-place Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge), in fact, is merely one point behind.

The "bubble" obviously has become crowded.

But among those six who are on the outside of the top 10 looking in, no one's face is pressed harder against the glass than four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Gordon fell from the sanctity of 10th place to the precarious 12th-place spot after his 21st-place finish Sunday at California Speedway. He comes into Richmond 30 points behind McMurray.

"It's intense pressure going into one single race, and you'll remember last year, seeing what all those guys that were battling to get into the top 10 were going through, and seeing what Jeremy Mayfield pulled off," Gordon said Tuesday.

"I mean, we're kind of in that same situation where, you know, we're not in the best position, but anything is possible, especially on a short track like Richmond. We've been in pressure situations before ... for whatever reason, things have gone the way they've gone this year. I know there is a reason. Who knows? We might find out why on Sunday if it was meant to be or not meant to be."

Gordon does have reason for optimism, because of a semi-rich Richmond history. In his 25 starts at RIR, Gordon has two victories, 10 top-five finishes and 16 top 10s. His average finish: 14th. On the downside, he hasn't won there since September 2000.

Following are the Chase outlooks for the other five drivers on the wrong side of the bubble:

• Ryan Newman/11th place: He has 2,928 points. McMurray has one point more than that. In seven Richmond runs, Newman has one victory (Sept. 2003) and five top 10s. "There's no doubt about it that we've got our hands full this weekend," Newman said.

"We absolutely did not want to leave California outside of the top 10, but that's the hand we've been dealt. Now we'll just do our best to win this Saturday night. Hopefully we can pull a Jeremy Mayfield on all of them, winning the race and securing us a spot in the Chase. Last year was a nail-biter and it looks like this year will be, too."

• Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford)/12th place: Struggling of late, Sadler trails McMurray by 52 points. At Richmond, the Virginia native has struggled even more, with only one top-10 finish in 13 starts.

• Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford)/14th place: Jarrett -- Sadler's Robert Yates Racing teammate -- is perhaps the last driver in the standings with a realistic chance to make the Chase, as he's 117 points behind McMurray. As far as Richmond goes, Jarrett has two wins and 12 top 10s in 35 starts.

• Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet)/15th place): Harvick is 131 back of McMurray. He is mathematically eligible, a status reflective of a thus-far disappointing season. Harvick has made nine RIR starts, with three top 10s.

• Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet)/16th place: Trailing McMurray by 135, Nemechek, like Harvick, is a serious long shot. But that doesn't detract from what is looking like a career-best season. At RIR, Nemechek has three top 10s and one of his four career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup wins -- in the spring of 2003.

Gordon's mind set sounds like a guide for all of the 10 drivers still in Chase contention.

"I think all you can focus on is what you do have control of," Gordon said. "We've got to go out there and put the best race car on the race track throughout the whole race, pit stops and strategy. We really are going to have to be as on top of our game this weekend as we've ever been."


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