The race is on for top-10 spots

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Kurt Busch equates each of the remaining races leading up to the "Chase for the Championship" to a best-of-seven series.

Drivers with the most top-seven finishes in the next six races have the best chance at earning a spot in the NASCAR Nextel Cup's postseason.

"Each week is a playoff series," Busch said. "We're all just trying to advance to the next track."

Busch dropped from sixth to seventh in the point standings after failing to finish last week's Pennsylvania 500. He's still in good position to finish in the top 10 after 26 races and thereby qualify for the "Chase", comprised of the final 10 races of the season.

But his advantage and those of the other four drivers positioned in sixth through 10th place in the standings -- Elliott Sadler, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick -- continue to narrow.

Busch is 101 points ahead of 11th-place driver Jeremy Mayfield and 194 in front of Jamie McMurray in 15th place. Harvick, the 10th-place driver, has a slim 40-point edge on Mayfield and less than 100 on McMurray.

"We know if we do slip up, we're in a world of hurt," Busch said.

Truth be told, Busch and the rest of the top-10 drivers should be pain-free until the "Chase for the Championship" opens Sept. 19 with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire.

The Nextel Cup points system favors those currently in the top 10. The difference in points awarded between finishing third and finishing 10th is only 31 points.

While the margins between drivers have shrunk in recent weeks, the top 10 hasn't welcomed a new member in more than three months. Drivers have swapped positions in the top 10, but not since Talladega has a driver moved into the top 10.

Even a top-two finish by say, Mark Martin, who's currently 49 points out of the top 10 in 13th place, doesn't mean much if drivers in positions five through 10 finish in the top 20.

Martin, a Nextel Cup veteran at age 45 and a four-time runner-up in the season championship race, understands the math. For his team to have a realistic shot at making the top 10, he said they need to win this weekend's Brickyard 400. The biggest danger to the frontrunners is failing to finish races. That could result in some running a more conservative style between now and the start of the "Chase for the Championship" in a twist on an adage made famous by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

Instead of "Just win, baby" it's "Just finish, baby."

Then again, series leader Jimmie Johnson won at Pocono and said he'll continue to push hard in the next six races.

"Not with this points system and not even with our current standing," Johnson said when asked if he'd think about racing conservatively. "We're going to take some chances."

And that could leave those outside the top 10 with no chance at all.

Deciphering Points System

How NASCAR awards race points:

Winner = 180 points

Second = 170

3rd through 6th = Total decreases in increments of five points for each position

7th through 11th = Total decreases in increments of five points for each position

12th through 43rd = Total decreases in increments of three points for each position


Leading at least one lap = 5 points

Leading most laps = 5 points

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