NASCAR & Auto Racing

Every race counts now

Time is running out.

Only 19 of 36 Nextel Cup Series races have been completed, but the race to make the Chase is on a much tighter schedule.

The field of 12 drivers who will compete for the series championship will be set after the season's 26th race, Sept. 8 at Richmond, Va. However, the spread among the drivers near the cutoff shows little wiggle room.

Entering Sunday's Allstate 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and defending race winner Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers with multiple wins (each has four).

Eight drivers -- Gordon, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer -- have 10 or more top-10 finishes. Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only winless drivers among the top 12.

It's no surprise then that Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr. are among those most in danger of falling out of the top 12, while those knocking on the door include Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears, who have won races.

Earnhardt Jr. holds the final position. He is 30 points ahead of Ryan Newman and 77 ahead of Newman's Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch.

"We're in good shape for the Chase," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Even if we were outside the cutoff, I'd still have a lot of confidence in my team that we'd make it."

Last year, heentered Indianapolis just outside the 10-driver cutoff in 11th. His crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., made a gutsy call late in the race to leave Earnhardt Jr. on the track rather than pit and he ended up with a sixth-place finish.

"It may have been the most important single decision last year to get us into the Chase," Earnhardt Jr. said.

The Penske organization has made tremendous gains in the past two months and either Newman or Kurt Busch can still crack the top 12.

It will be more difficult for Mears, but anything seemspossible considering he's moved from 35th in points to 17th in eight races since Darlington, S.C., on May 13. He sits 230 points behind Earnhardt Jr.

"Winning definitely boosted our confidence and took a little weight off our shoulders," said Mears, who won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 27. "But the team itself has created the momentum. We've really been hitting our stride, and I feel things are jelling on a lot of different levels.

"We dug ourselves a pretty big hole in the beginning of the year. I think we still have a shot at the Chase -- even if it's a long one."

Mears and McMurray -- with his July 7 win at Daytona -- have used a couple of the season's biggest races to launch comebacks.

With NASCAR's return to the Brickyard this weekend, the stage is set again.

Shaping the Chase

A Lock
Driver Points Wins T5s T10s Comment
Jeff Gordon 2,911 4 12 17 Only question now is how many bonus points for wins will he have?
Denny Hamlin 2,608 1 7 11 The consistency has been there, the wins have not.
Matt Kenseth 2,565 1 7 13 Remarkably and quietly consistent.
Jeff Burton 2,491 1 6 10 Has picked it up heading to the final stretch.
Carl Edwards 2,473 1 5 7 Now you see him, now you don't this season.
Tony Stewart 2,429 1 5 12 His first win typically sparks several others.
Jimmie Johnson 2,423 4 9 11 Slipping away: Two top-10s in past seven races.
Kevin Harvick 2,337 1 4 9 Peaking at right time with four top-10s in past five races.
Holding On
Driver Points Wins T5s T10s Comment
Kyle Busch 2,314 1 4 10 Needs to turn great cars into great finishes.
Clint Bowyer 2,281 0 1 10 A win would do wonders to maintain momentum.
Martin Truex Jr. 2,208 1 4 7 Should be OK if he can stay out of others' messes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,151 0 3 7 Another bad race and he will open the door to the Chase field.
Trying To Break In
Driver Points Wins T5s T10s Comment
Ryan Newman 2,121 0 3 8 The only thing missing this season is a win.
Kurt Busch 2,074 0 3 5 Third and sixth in past two races. If that continues he'll be tough to stop.
Jamie McMurray 2,040 1 3 7 Not going to make it with win one week and 38th the next.
Greg Biffle 1,966 0 2 5 It's a miracle this team is still in contention with the problems its had.
Casey Mears 1,921 1 4 5 On a roll, but time is quickly running out.