Chance For The Chase

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A second 2004 trip to the nation's second-largest market is giving every driver a second chance of sorts.

For some drivers, it might well be a last chance.

Two races remain before the "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup" begins. The first-ever "Chase" will be an elite championship showdown over the season's last 10 races. The complete field will be determined after race No. 26, next week at Richmond International Raceway.

This week it's time for race No. 25, the Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway just east of Los Angeles. Sunday will mark the debut of California Speedway's second NASCAR Nextel Cup date. It replaces the longstanding Labor Day weekend date in Darlington, S.C., and is a result of NASCAR's "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" concept designed to increase the sport's nationwide appeal.

Drivers in the Top 10 after Richmond - plus anyone outside the Top 10 but within 400 points of the standings' leader - qualify for the "Chase." For drivers outside the Top 10 - the proverbial NASCAR "bubble" - time grows short.

The top three drivers in the points this week have clinched Chase berths - Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Beyond that, there are far more questions than answers, particularly from those taking aim at 10th-place Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge).

Benefiting those right behind Newman is the fact that he's clearly in their sights, and within range. Coming into Sunday's event, the drivers in 11th-15th all are within 45 points of Newman. In fact, the spread between eighth-place Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) and 15th-place Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge) is only 50 points.

As far as potential "climbers" this week, start with 13th-place Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), who has four top-10 finishes at California Speedway, including a victory there in 2000. Watch out for 12th-place Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), who like Mayfield has been in all eight previous California Speedway races, having posted three top 10s including a victory in 1998; and 14th-place Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), who has four top-10 runs.

Jarrett, the 1999 series champion, has 2,873 points, 45 behind Newman. He's taking a "cautiously optimistic" stance heading into the season's next two events.

"It's not impossible," Jarrett said, regarding his "Chase" chances. "We've just got to have two good races. We'll concentrate on California this week and if we can have a good race this weekend then we will have a chance going into Richmond in two weeks.

"We've had some good races at tracks that have characteristics similar to California, like Michigan. I don't know if our success at Michigan will translate at California but I am looking forward to our chances. We didn't run very well at California back in April (finishing 24th) but I think we've learned a lot about our program on this type of track to this point. I think with the type of cars we're building right now and with the engines, we have a very competitive chance."

At this point, that's all drivers like Jarrett can ask for - a chance.

Thanks to the new format created by the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, they have one.

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