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Gordon in frantic race to make the Chase

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — His crew calls him ''Money Man'' because when the stakes are high, Jeff Gordon is the only driver they want on their team.

His reputation is about to be tested with an entire season on the line. Gordon has one race left to squeeze his way into the chase for the championship and prove he still can come through in the clutch.

He'll have his work cut out for him Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway, where Gordon will enter the race 12th in the standings, 30 points out of the final qualifying spot.

''It's intense pressure going into one single race,'' Gordon said during NASCAR's weekly teleconference. ''We've been in pressure situations before. I know there is a reason and who knows — we might find out why on (Saturday) it was meant to be or not meant to be.''

Ten drivers will qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup title hunt, and Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch already have clinched their spots. Jeremy Mayfield needs only to finish 39th or better Saturday to get in.

That leaves about six drivers racing for the final three spots, and Gordon is the star of the group.

A four-time series champion and NASCAR's most recognizable driver, Gordon is the one racer capable of winning each and every week. He opened the season as the driver to beat, winning the Daytona 500 and two other events, but his Hendrick Motorsports team has been on a slide since May — dropping from second in the standings to as low as 15th.

''It's pretty hard to figure out what is going on with that team, especially with the talent behind the wheel,'' said Dale Earnhardt Jr., already eliminated from title contention. ''He's just always been the one guy who could flip a switch and get going when he needed to.''

But there hasn't been a magic button for Gordon to push lately, and unless the No. 24 crew figures something out before Saturday night, Gordon would prefer to miss the Chase completely as opposed to being noncompetitive during the 10-race run.

''Honestly, if we perform this weekend like we have the last few, we don't belong in the Chase anyway,'' Gordon said. ''You know, all we're going to do is go out there and finish 10th in the points.''

Gordon refuses to place blame for his struggles, making a point to express support for crew chief Robbie Loomis. The two have one of the longest current driver-crew chief relationships in the garage, teaming together in 2000 then winning the championship the next year.

''I believe 100 percent in Robbie Loomis and in his abilities,'' Gordon said. ''When we're on, there's nobody better, and because of our lack of performance this year I really don't think that, you know, Robbie should be put to blame for that.''

But he also hinted that a shake-up of the team could be in the works and Loomis might not be back next season.

''We talked before this season even started about Robbie's future, what he wanted to do,'' Gordon said. ''If it's up to me, yeah, I'd love to have him as my crew chief. Robbie, you know, with his mom and some of the illnesses she's gone through, he's trying to decide right now what his plans are. It has nothing to do with our performance this year.''

Gordon will need to worry about more than just his own performance Saturday night — he'll have to keep one eye on the competition in the race for the Chase.

Carl Edwards currently holds down the eighth spot in the standings, and heads into Richmond on a roll with three top-five finishes in the past six races.

Edwards, competing in his first full Nextel Cup season, needs to finish 19th or better at Richmond to make the Chase regardless of what the rest of the field does.

''Our primary goal this week is to make the Chase,'' he said. '''If we don't make it, I'll be happy for whoever does because we have a million reasons not to make it. But we really want to make it and I think we can.''

Matt Kenseth is ninth in the standings, and if he and Edwards can make it in, it will put all five of car owner Jack Roush's Cup entries in the field.

Kenseth has rallied to put himself into Chase contention, finishing seventh or better in four of the last five races. He also has experience at Richmond, with a victory there in 2002.

''We've had a good run over the last several months and have put ourselves in contention for this thing,'' he said. ''We have to have no mistakes this weekend — not by the driver and not on pit road.''

Jamie McMurray holds the 10th and final qualifying spot, with just a one-point advantage over Ryan Newman.

McMurray was in this position last season, as well, but failed to come up with a strong run at Richmond and missed out on the Chase by 15 points. Newman will be trying to force his way in despite a recent slide that has produced finishes of 30th or worse in three of the last five races.

''There's no doubt about it that we've got our hands full this weekend,'' Newman said. ''We absolutely did not want to leave California outside of the top 10, but that's the hand we've been dealt. Now, we'll just do our best to win this Saturday night.''

Elliott Sadler is also on a slide, heading into Richmond 13th in the standings after plummeting from the third spot.



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