In one respect it almost seems unfair.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. attempts to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup, he is facing a 2-on-1 battle.
Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver and 13th in points, trails Penske Racing's Kurt Busch by seven points for the 12th and final Chase spot entering Sunday's Centurion Boats at the Glen at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. Sitting in 14th is Busch's teammate, Ryan Newman.
Busch catapulted past Earnhardt Jr. for the 12th spot last weekend with his dominating win at Pocono (Pa.) and ended a 51-race winless streak. Earnhardt Jr. has a sizable (47 races) winless streak of his own.
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Newman "came to Victory Lane and congratulated us. The team chemistry is really on its peak right now with the way we share information and help each other on the track," Busch said.
"If we have a fast car guys know it out on the track and Newman definitely helped us get to this point."
In recent weeks, Busch and Newman have made considerable gains. Earlier this season it appeared Penske Racing's hopes for contending for a series championship would have to be put off until 2008.
Busch's 100-point penalty after driving into Tony Stewart's pit during the June 4 race at Dover, Del., left him 17th in points. Newman at the time was 15th.
Since then, Busch has picked up a victory and moved into the Chase with five races left before the field is set. Newman has four top-10 finishes during the span and is 83 points behind Earnhardt Jr.
The performance is a big step up over last year when Busch finished 16th in points and Newman a career-low 18th.
"Kurt's win came at the right time. Everybody keeps saying, `What's the matter?' But we've been running good but not delivering at the end of the race," said team president Don Miller.
"It's frustrating. This is the reward. It's been there all along. Our team performance has been great the past three months. This is the type of sport where one weekend you're happy and the next weekend it will rip your guts out.
"This is an indication of what we are about."
Unlike many Cup organizations, Penske has avoided the increasing temptation to expand.
"I've been where there's five cars and where there's single cars. But having the right teammates is more important than having the numbers," Busch said. "Everybody has to want to work together and like working together.
"Obviously four is better than two if it's working right. But if it's not working right, it can be worse than two."
While a road course might not seem like the best place to pick up ground in the standings, Busch and Newman have shown promise. Busch won the Busch Series race at Watkins Glen last year; Newman won the series' race in 2005.
"I think we have two really good road racers and I fully expect this momentum to continue," Miller said. "They both are going to run both races this weekend. They're going to have extra time on the track and considering their records, we have a good chance at a win or two."
Chasing the Chase
In the past nine races Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch have gone from afterthoughts to the verge of qualifying for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Here's a summary of their seasons:
|Position 9 races ago||15||17|
NASCAR Statistical Services