- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Nobody ever said the road to the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship was going to be smooth. That was proved beyond doubt Saturday night during the Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Consider:

• Dale Earnhardt Jr., struggling since he sustained burns in a speedway accident earlier this year, ran away from the field at the track his late father dominated and clinched a spot in the 10-car “Chase for the Cup” field.

• Mark Martin, who has run at the track dozens of times, missed an exit coming out of the pits while running third and lost more than 10 spots. He went down a lap and finished 13th, costing him as much as 46 points and keeping him out of the top 10.

• Points leader Jeff Gordon lost time on one occasion when he overshot his pit stall and later was penalized by NASCAR for a restart infraction; he finished 14th.

• Kevin Harvick, trying to stay inside the top 10, had to be replaced on lap 362 when his left arm went numb after it became pinched in his safety harness; his car finished 24th.

• Joe Gibbs’ drivers, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, were both involved in an accident not of their doing on lap 389; Labonte finished 16th and barely stayed in the top 10, while Stewart, fourth in points, finished 19th.

It wasn’t even an average night at the famed little track, which has a long history of humbling even the great and proud. At one point midway through the 500-lap event there were 230 consecutive green flag laps and 123 miles of nonstop racing, a span that is all but unprecedented for a track that specializes in crumpled sheet metal and frayed nerves.

“I think it wore everybody out,” said Earnhardt, who won the Busch series race at Bristol the previous night and was exhausted.

“I could not believe it, could not believe it stayed green that long,” rookie Brian Vickers said. “That was unbelievable for Bristol, but I guess that everybody was fairly calm.”

Maybe that was because there was so much at stake. Ryan Newman made the biggest move of the night, finishing second, vaulting to 10th in the standings and pushing rookie Kasey Kahne into the land of the wannabes — albeit just 26 points out of the title picture.

NASCAR split this season into two segments, a 26-race preliminary series in which 10 teams (plus any others within 400 points of the leader) will compete in the 10-race sprint for the championship. The series leader after 26 events will start with 5,500 points, and the other nine cars will drop back at five-point increments.

The top nine drivers entering Bristol came out in the same spots, though many gained ground because of Gordon’s 14th place finish. Jimmie Johnson, running second, cut Gordon’s lead to 24 points, but where teams place in the top 10 doesn’t matter a great deal, certainly not as much as just getting into the championship.

“It’s not impossible,” said former champion Dale Jarrett, who is in 14th place but only 45 points out of the title field. “We still have a chance, and we’re still giving ourselves a chance. This could have been a night where we … could have taken ourselves out of it, [but] we did a good job.”

Martin stayed in 12th place but picked up nine points in the race for 10th place. He remains philosophical about the situation.

“If we make it, we make it. If we don’t, we don’t,” he said. “I messed up and cost us a lap. [The crew] told me to go straight out of the race track, but I was either concentrating too much or not enough, I guess.”

The scene shifts to California Speedway in Fontana on Sunday, the next-to-the-last opportunity to make it into the title field.

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