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Two to go: Chase for the Championship heats up after Bristol

Posted: Monday, August 29, 2005

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Jeff Gordon is in, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is out and Matt Kenseth suddenly is knocking on the door.

The typical bumping and banging at Bristol Motor Speedway shuffled the championship standings, ensuring the race to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship will go down to the wire.

Kenseth, written off months ago as an also-ran this season, has surged back into playoff contention. His dominating victory Saturday night in the Sharpie 500 — Kenseth's first win in more than a year — pushed him right onto the playoff bubble.

The top 10 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 10 race in Richmond, Va., will be eligible to race for the title, and Kenseth is a mere 11 points out of contention. His climb has taken everyone by surprise, from his rivals to Kenseth himself.

''I was saying the last few weeks that I thought we were out of (the Chase),'' Kenseth said. ''We were in the late 30s (in the points standings), and we were 200-and-some points out. And not just 200-and-some points out, but we had six cars in between us and 10th.

''That's hard to do — to gain points and have a great day, that can happen. But to have five or six people have trouble and have a great day for several weeks in a row is a difficult task.''

Somehow Kenseth has pulled it off. He was as low as 36th in the points standings early in the season, was 20th eight races ago and 15th when he started Saturday night's race.

But after starting from the pole and leading 415 of the 500 laps, Kenseth jumped four spots in the standings to 11th.

Now on the verge of making the Chase, Kenseth could give car owner Jack Roush all five of his drivers in the 10-car field. Roush drivers Greg Biffle (third), Mark Martin (fifth), Kurt Busch (seventh) and Carl Edwards (eighth) are currently in the top 10.

''We've got a really nice group of cars that can go do pretty much on any given day what anybody can do in the business,'' Roush said. ''If we don't put (all five) in the top 10, it's going to be because I've done something to screw them up. I sure don't want to face that.''

The Roush contingent will face stiff competition from the drivers vying for their spots.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, raced his way into eligibility with a sixth-place finish Saturday night. It felt almost as good as a victory for Gordon, who has struggled the past two months to put a complete race together.

Considered one of the best drivers in history at adapting over the course of a race, Gordon and his team have struggled lately with changing conditions and mid-race adjustments to the car. The problems have threatened to keep him out of the title hunt, but his Bristol run moved him into the 10th and final qualifying spot.

It's the first time since mid-June that Gordon has been in playoff contention, but Gordon isn't breathing easy yet. He knows he needs strong runs in California and Richmond to lock himself in.

''I'm still concerned,'' Gordon said. ''The way our season's gone, no matter how good we're running, no matter how bad, you just never know what's going to happen.''

Earnhardt, meanwhile, isn't concerned about anything.

His team is showing signs of life after a season-long slump, and he was able to rally from starting 41st at Bristol to an eighth-place finish. Still, he's 15th in the standings and would need all five drivers in front of him to have terrible runs for Earnhardt to qualify.

''I'm not even worried about it,'' he said. ''I'm having fun driving these race cars, and that's all I think about. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole (in the points), so I'm just going to keep driving and have a hell of a good time doing it.''

One driver not enjoying anything right now is Kevin Harvick, who likely saw his championship hopes eliminated at Bristol when he was inadvertently wrecked by Dale Jarrett.

Harvick dropped two places in the standings to 16th after Jarrett intentionally wrecked Ryan Newman as payback for earlier contact. Harvick was trailing the two cars when Jarrett made a sharp right turn into Newman, and Harvick couldn't avoid running into them.

But instead of blaming Jarrett, Harvick focused on the inability of his Richard Childress Racing team to field a competitive car this season.

''We don't deserve to be in the Chase, anyway,'' he shrugged.

Harvick has been so frustrated with his team that he has postponed discussing a contract extension with Childress, claiming he doesn't want to lock himself into a new deal until he's comfortable with the direction the team is headed.

Jarrett, meanwhile, likely ended his Chase hopes in a fit of road rage. NASCAR believed he intentionally wrecked Newman and penalized him two laps, causing Jarrett to finish 31st.

It dropped him three spots in the standings to 14th and likely out of playoff contention.

Jarrett left the track without comment, but Newman had plenty to say.

''Mine was unintentional and his was intentional and that's all I'm saying,'' Newman said. ''NASCAR can do what they want with it. By no means did I purposely wreck Dale Jarrett.

''I was surprised and shocked when he later ran into us. I wasn't expecting it. I'm really disappointed, as is this whole team.''



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