NASCAR field narrowing down for chase

Published 6:05 pm Thursday, August 24, 2006

When Jeff Burton’s engine failed after just 17 laps in Michigan, all he could do was watch helplessly from the garage as he plummeted in the Chase for the championship standings.

A sure-bet to make it into NASCAR’s playoffs before Sunday’s race began, Burton’s broken motor dropped him five spots in the standings to ninth — the edge of elimination.

With three races to go before the title field is set, Burton was all too aware of how devastating a day it was. So he gathered his crestfallen team in a huddle and gave his very best pep talk.

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“I just wanted to remind everybody that this a good race team, and this happens to everybody,” he said. “We’re not going to get down about this. This is nobody’s fault. We’re all in this together.

“We just have to bring it to the next three races and just do a good job.”

What happened to Burton could be the norm over the final three qualifying weeks. A lock one week could turn into a long shot the next behind a broken part, bad pit stop or a bump on the track.

The final three-race stretch starts Saturday night at tiny Bristol Motor Speedway, where tempers typically flare and the slightest nudge can send a car into the wall. As if the tight confines of Bristol’s bullring don’t create enough of an accident-waiting-to-happen atmosphere, many a driver has used this race to settle a previous score.

That could be bad news for Chase contenders Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who have landed on Carl Edwards’ bad side. With Edwards all but eliminated from the playoffs, Bristol is just the place where “inadvertent” contact could force his foes to join him on the sidelines.

After Bristol it’s on to California Speedway and the final qualifying race at Richmond International Speedway. Here’s how the Chase is shaping up:

WHO’S IN: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Ken-seth.

Although neither officially has clinched a spot, it would take a total collapse to keep either out. The two have been the most consistent drivers this season and have seven wins between them.

Johnson has led the points for 15 straight weeks and has a series-best 17 top-10 finishes. He’s ranked among the top 10 drivers for 92 consecutive races, dating back to March 2004.

Kenseth has trailed only Johnson in the standings for 12 weeks and used Sunday’s win to narrow the gap to 58 points. It’s a far cry from where Kenseth was last season — 15th in the standings before Bristol, where he won to put himself in the Chase.

IN GOOD SHAPE: Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart.

Although Harvick is solidly in third place right now, teammate Burton’s failure Sunday has the Richard Childress Racing organization all too aware of how quickly things can crumble. It shouldn’t happen this week at Bristol, where Harvick has one win and eight top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts. But if the RCR motors have a batch of bad parts, his growing status as a legitimate championship contender could quickly blow up.

Martin capitalized on Burton’s demise, moving up two spots to fourth in the standings. Although he has not been dominant this season, Martin is good enough to get into the Chase. But the veteran races for wins and won’t play it safe to secure his status.

Stewart, remember, was 11th in the standings one month ago. But this is a championship team, and he’s already worked his way back up to the fifth in the points. When the Chase begins, the defending Nextel Cup champion will be there.

DON’T MESS UP: Jeff Gordon and Burton.

Gordon used a second-place finish in Michigan to climb three spots in the standings to sixth. But the four-time champion is all over the map this season: Good some weeks, totally off others. He proved last year the sport can survive without him racing for the title, and three bad runs right now could bump him out of contention again.

Burton has zero room for error the rest of the way. The good thing is his team has been consistent all season, and he’s got 13 top-10 finishes this season. He was 21st in the standings at this time last year and deserves a spot in the Chase.

HANGING ON: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busch has done a terrific job of turning around early season turmoil, But his 39th-place finish at Michigan cost him two spots in the standings. In seventh place now, he can’t afford any mistakes.

Rookie Hamlin is the shocker of the field. Sure he won the season-opening exhibition race and then swept the points races in the Poconos, but he wasn’t expected to put together a Chase-contending season. His Joe Gibbs Racing team is playing it safe right now and that should help Hamlin handle the pressure. But if he’s on the bubble in Richmond, he’s a solid bet to make it — Hamlin finished second there in May.

Earnhardt is in serious trouble. Third in the standings last month, he’s dropped back to 10th after a rash of bad luck. He’s not to blame for getting into this spot, but he and his team must accept responsibility for not getting out of it sooner. Of all the drivers on the bubble, he’s the best bet to miss out on the Chase for the second year in a row.

OUT: Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.

Of the foursome, only Kahne is likely to race his way into the Chase. But he’s been in this same spot the past two season and failed to capitalize at Richmond both times. Assuming he has learned from past mistakes and can return to the midseason form that helped him to four wins, Kahne can get in.

Biffle, Edwards and Busch, all Chase contenders last season, need miracles from their teams and collapses from most everyone in front of them to make it in.

CHASE PREDICTION: Johnson, Kenseth, Harvick, Stewart, Gordon, Burton, Martin, Kyle Busch, Kahne, Hamlin.