FONTANA, Calif. The championship can wait. Never has there been so much attention on 10th place in NASCAR's premier stock car series.
With two races left in what's been dubbed the ''Race for the Chase,'' five drivers are within striking distance of a top 10 position that would make them eligible for NASCAR's new ''Chase for the Nextel Cup'' playoff format.
The top 10 drivers in the standings after next week's race in Richmond will be the only ones eligible to compete for the season championship over the final 10 races of the season.
Going into Sunday's Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway, the five drivers closest to the final spot held by Ryan Newman are bunched within 45 points. Adding to the drama, Bobby Labonte is just one point ahead of Newman and eighth-place Kevin Harvick is five ahead.
''I'd say we've got 15 top 10 teams,'' Jamie McMurray, tied with Dale Jarrett for 14th, said.
Even Elliott Sadler, in seventh place and 101 points ahead of Newman, is a little nervous.
''We made up a lot of ground in the chase last week at Bristol with a fifth-place run,'' Sadler said. ''I know I didn't win that race, but I sure felt like I did.
''With just two races left until the playoffs, I know I will also be a little more conscious on restarts and try not to put myself in a bad situation.''
Sadler still remembers a flat tire last month at Michigan that cost him dearly in the points.
''That's just part of racing,'' he said. ''You can do everything perfect on some days and still not have the good outcome you expect.''
That thought isn't comforting for any of the drivers racing for a top 10 spot.
McMurray, docked 25 points early this season when his team brought a car with an unapproved rear window to Bristol, also has failed to finish six races this season and considers himself lucky to still be in the running.
''If I could just have 10 points for each of my six DNFs (did not finish), we'd be in the top 10,'' McMurray said. ''It's all about finishing. The points system rewards guys that are consistent. If you cant do that, you don't deserve to be there anyway.''
And last year's top rookie figures that isn't going to change at California or Richmond.
''I think it's going to come down to who doesn't have trouble in these next two races,'' he said. ''Of those seven cars from eighth to 15th, someone is going to have trouble. Whoever doesn't is who is going to be in the top 10.''
Newman, who fell out of the top 10 last month and has barely managed to get back in, is trying not to put too much heat on himself or his team.
''The points battle is really tight, but we, as a team, don't put any pressure on ourselves,'' Newman said. ''We do all we can every weekend. That's all I can ask of these guys. If we put in a sincere effort, the points will work themselves out.''
Jeremy Mayfield, tied with Mark Martin for 12th, just 35 points behind Newman and nine behind teammate Kasey Kahne, is trying to look at the big picture.
''This team is so far ahead of where we were a year ago. If we get in, it's a bonus to all of us,'' Mayfield said. ''If we don't, that means we're going to be hungrier to be in it next year. Either way, there are great things in the future for our team.''
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