August 20, 2005 | 2:22 P.M. EST
Four races left. Four chances to get into the top 10 and stay there for the opportunity to race for the biggest prize in stock car racing.
Two are on big tracks, and two are on little tracks. Michigan and California are essentially the same track. Bristol is…well, Bristol. And Richmond is a short track that acts bigger than it is.
Who is in and who isn’t will be determined over this playing field.
As of right now, before the race at Michigan, there are 27 drivers still eligible for the Chase. That number will change following the race, and it will keep doing that until Richmond, when the Chase is set.
The key player in this is whoever is in 10th place. Right now, it’s Carl Edwards by the oh-so-slim margin of three points over Robert Yates Racing teammates Elliott Sadler and Dale Jarrett.
Point leader Tony Stewart, second-place Jimmie Johnson and third-place Greg Biffle are all but mortal locks to make it in, as are Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Jeremy Mayfield.
Where it gets interesting is from eighth place on back. Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Edwards are all eminently vulnerable from behind.
All three run well at Michigan, and this could change by Sunday night, but all have been guilty of the occasional goof in 22 races so far this year. This would be a bad time for one of those.
Of those not already in, Sadler and Jarrett are in the best position. Jarrett has won four times at Michigan and Sadler has top-10s in two of his last three starts.
Jeff Gordon needs a good run here—where have we heard that before? He has to be within 75 points by the time the series hits California if he has any chance, and Kevin Harvick is in much the same boat. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the last driver with a chance to still make it in, but he’ll have to have the run of his life at Michigan, win Bristol, finish in the top 10 at California and either win or run top-five at Richmond to have any shot. And, some of the leaders have to have trouble.
Of course, with the exception of Chicagoland, he’s been dog awful on the intermediate tracks this year. Leading laps could help him, but that’s something he hasn’t done much this year. In fact, Terry Labonte has the same number of bonus points that Earnhardt Jr. does this year, and Labonte’s only run nine races.
Junior could win at Bristol and Richmond, but it’s the big tracks that are his worry. His average finish at Michigan over the last four races is 22.7, and his best finish there is seventh. If he matches or exceeds that and one of the drivers he’s fighting with has a bad day, it might happen.
Gordon is in the most interesting spot. He’s 67 points out of 10th, roughly 16 finishing positions, and the race becomes one of simple numbers. Can he finish 16 spots better than whomever is in 10th the rest of the way, combined?
After Michigan, it gets a whole lot harder.