Dwindling Opportunities

Other than road courses and their oval counterparts, there could hardly be two tracks with more opposite facades than Bristol and California speedways.

Bristol Motor Speedway: A half-mile torture track nestled in the slumbering Tennessee hills noted for its unmannered mayhem -- characterized by the three-way dustup between Dale Jarrett, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick in last Saturday's Sharpie 500, won by a resurgent Matt Kenseth.

California Speedway: A sleek two-mile highway an Oscar's throw from the supercharged Hollywood-Los Angeles-Fontana triangle, site of Sunday's Sony HD 500 and the second-to-last event in the Race for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

While Bristol has anointed Rusty Wallace the (active) master with nine career victories, the 36-years younger California Speedway has spread its largesse with a more liberal, left-coast touch. Jeff Gordon spikes the chart with three victories, while Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler all have one triumph apiece.

Ten events, eight different winners. All the above-mentioned drivers enter Sunday's showdown having either locked up or tippy-toed close to clinching a spot in the final charge or -- in the case of defending event winner Sadler - can do so with a clean ride and spark of luck. Among the point leaders, only king of the hill Tony Stewart has yet to turn into California's victory lane, and Senior Smoke has been so hot lately even a dead-last run out West won't dampen his flame.

The deliciously named Chevy Rock & Roll 400 Sept. 10 at Richmond International Raceway remains the deal-breaking race en route to the 2005 title, but California has suddenly emerged as a make-or-break-it event for a host of hopefuls still angling for a berth.

Although stock-car traditionalists may never embrace the (now) second-year Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, which in effect will level the playing field among the top 10 following Richmond, there is no arguing that it has injected new life into the title bout while at the same time slamming the door on so many others. Case in point: 19th-ranked Jeff Burton, the runner-up at Bristol, enters California a whopping 881 points behind Stewart but is still in contention.

Come Sunday, the only thing faster than the pole-sitter's lap will be fingers racing on calculators. Speaking of the pole, no driver to date has won from the pace-setting spot.

With Stewart, Johnson and Biffle ensured slots in the "Chase," 16 others have a mathematical chance of remaining in the hunt. Those currently ranked 11th through 17th can exit California rerouted into the top 10, while at a minimum at least two spots will remain up in the air entering Richmond.

The fourth-ranked Wallace is in at California with just a push of the ignition, while No. 5 Martin can clinch with a finish of fifth or better, no matter how well any other competitor performs. Mayfield, Busch and Carl Edwards, ranked sixth through eighth, also can come out of California with their futures secured on the strength of respectable runs.

The 10th-ranked Gordon, who has finished 11th or better in seven California starts, has also transformed from tin-plated to nearly golden after a string of rusty outings. Gordon, in fact, is a mere 20 points in arrears to No. 9 Ryan Newman; Kenseth is 11 points behind Gordon; and No. 12 Jamie McMurray is one point down to Kenseth.

Adding fuel to the fire, Jarrett dinged his gentlemanly reputation (and dropped from 11th to 14th in the rankings) for what NASCAR determined was an intentional punt of Newman at Bristol in an incident that also handicapped No. 16 Kevin Harvick. Unlike Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who insists he's having fun despite being 15th-ranked and 117 points behind Gordon - Harvick left any hard feelings he may have experienced at Bristol in the Southeast along with any notion of contending. Railing that he "didn't belong in the Chase anyway," Harvick no doubt will have rallied by Sunday; it's simply in his nature.

Also entering California with eyes forward and heads up: No. 17 Joe Nemechek and 18th-ranked Brian Vickers. As they all know, from Stewart to Burton, in the new era of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, it ain't over 'till it's over. Or at least until Richmond.

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