- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

Jeff Gordon is home free. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are almost there. After that, 10 drivers are fighting for five spots, with timing becoming everybody’s enemy.

It is the final three weeks of NASCAR’s “chase for the Nextel Cup” preliminary season, 26 races to set the stage for the final 10-race sprint for a championship. So far it has been what the racing organization hoped — something to hype dwindling interest late in the season as football returns and baseball starts its final run.

It is a system that is still evolving, and nobody is quite sure what will happen at the end — other than lot of criticism from some who finish on the outside.

NASCAR broke its 36-race season into two segments, starting with the 26-race preliminary stage. Tonight’s race at the half-mile track in Bristol, Tenn., is the 24th; No25 is next week in Fontana, Calif., with the final chance to gain a spot Sept.11 in Richmond.

Bristol, a throwback to stock car racing’s old days of small, tight tracks that usually lead to mayhem, will further muddle an already confused picture. Pacesetter Gordon leads Kenseth, who is fifth in the standings, by 236 points. But only 187 points separate sixth-place Kurt Busch from the pretender in 15th, Jamie McMurray.

Only the top 10 teams (and any others within 400 points of the leader) advance to the championship series, which by itself is enough to cause hard feelings among the 33 teams left behind. Things are so tight in the qualifying battle that just six points separate 10th and 11th places with possibly millions of dollars at stake.

If ground is to be made up tonight, a driver must have a quick car and be very lucky on a high-banked track where accidents are the rule and mangled machines commonplace.

“You just have to hope that you have a good car and that you can stay out of all the trouble, and sometimes that’s hoping for a lot,” said veteran driver Mark Martin, who is in 12th position, 33 points out of the title run. “We haven’t been able to stay out of trouble very well there … and we’ve wrecked a bunch of cars.”

Drivers like Martin and Dale Jarrett, another veteran, had poor first halves but have worked themselves back into the title picture with recent consistent finishes in the top 10. Others, such as Bobby Labonte, have been in the top 10 in points all season but are struggling to stay there.

“Things happen in a hurry [at Bristol], and you’re just beating and banging on Saturday night,” Jarrett said. “It’s back to where we all started — Saturday night short track racing. You know going in that anything can happen — it’s Bristol.”

“Bristol can be such an evil track,” said Ryan Newman, currently 13th but only 44 points out of the title picture. “A team can put its best race car out on the track, be dominating the field and suddenly get caught up in someone else’s wreck. It seems unfair but that’s Bristol. Survival becomes the key to a good finish.”

Gordon won his sixth pole of the season yesterday, which may allow him to avoid the early rash of accidents that seem to mar events at Bristol. But several drivers deeply involved in the point chase — Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Kenseth, Busch and Earnhardt — are starting in the middle of the pack, where getting collected in somebody else’s trouble is nearly a sure bet.

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