RICHMOND, Va. The ''Drive for Five'' is alive, but not for Jeff Gordon. Instead, it's Carl Edwards, the surprise Nextel Cup title contender who gives car owner Jack Roush five chances to win the Chase for the championship.
The second year of NASCAR's 10-race, playoff-style finish will feature five Roush Racing cars in its 10-driver field including Saturday's winner Kurt Busch after Edwards and Matt Kenseth locked up two of the final spots with solid runs at Richmond International Raceway.
''I never thought in a million years we'd be in the top 10 of this deal,'' Edwards said after nabbing the eighth spot in the Chase. ''Nobody would have picked us to be here at the start of the year.''
No, it was Gordon who topped the list of likely candidates for the title. After all, he started the season announcing a ''Drive for Five'' campaign to add to his four NASCAR championships.
But he won't be eligible for the championship this season after faltering yet again in a high-stakes situation. His shot at making the Chase ended midway through the race in a fit of frustration.
''I'm done now,'' a dejected Gordon radioed to his crew after slapping the wall in a race he had to be nearly flawless in to qualify for the championship hunt. He finished 30th, and is assured his worst points finish since his rookie season.
''It was a disappointing night along with a disappointing season,'' Gordon said after the race. ''Now we can put this behind us and just go on and try to make this a better race team. The bottom line is we're way off and we've got a lot of work to do for next season.''
The season is just beginning for Roush, who has a 50 percent chance to win his third consecutive Cup title. He heads into the Chase with momentum after Busch won Saturday night's race and was followed by Kenseth and Greg Biffle. It gave Roush a sweep of the top three the first team to do so since 1997.
''I'm sure Jack is pretty happy right now,'' Kenseth said. ''He gives us everything we need to run up front.''
The Roush contingent will be led by Busch, the defending Nextel Cup champion, Biffle, Mark Martin, and Edwards the shock of the group. Ever the pessimist, Roush refused to accept the role as favorite.
''I think my chances are not one-in-two, probably one-in-three at best,'' he said. ''And my drivers all have a one-in-10 chance. We'll see what happens.''
In his first full Nextel Cup season, Edwards pulled into Chase contention by winning two races this season. Once he got into the top 10, he began to believe he belonged there and did his best to stay by keeping out of trouble.
He had one close call Saturday night, narrowly escaping serious damage by skirting through a seven-car accident with 44 laps to go.
''That was just pure focus and stress and all that, man,'' a visibly relieved Edwards said after finishing 21st. ''I almost went insane in the car there, just ... so nervous.''
Even before the near-miss, the tension began to get to Edwards, who radioed crew chief Bob Osborne begging for a Chase update.
''If you could, Bobby, just let me know where we're at in the points deal. I mean, if I gotta make something happen, I gotta make it happen, you know?''
In a calm tone, Osborne reassured his audibly rattled driver: ''Ninth place right now. Just keep running where you're running, pick up the spots when you've got room on the track, don't take any chances and we're going to be fine.''
''Alright, buddy, I'm just real nervous about it,'' Edwards replied.
Patrick takes pole after Briscoe's DQ
JOLIET, Ill. Danica Patrick was awarded the pole for the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 after fellow rookie Ryan Briscoe failed a post-qualifying inspection Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Patrick claimed her third pole, tying Tomas Scheckter for the IRL rookie record. The fourth driver to take to the track, she turned a fast lap of 215.970 mph.
Briscoe now has the 23rd spot, while Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Jaques Lazier were dropped from ninth to 22nd and 10th to 21st, respectively. Details of the infractions were not clear.
Patrick's fastest qualifying speed seemed safe until Briscoe, the final driver, temporarily replaced her on the pole.
Saturday's inspection failure was just another episode involving Patrick and Briscoe.
Two weeks ago, Briscoe slammed into the side of Patrick's car, taking out her and Helio Castroneves, while trying to pass on the 19th lap of the Argent Mortgage Indy Grand Prix at Infineon Raceway.
''It didn't make me feel extremely happy to get bumped off pole, but to get bumped off pole by the guy who took me out ... it is what it is,'' said Patrick, who leads all rookies with 271 points 51 more than second-place Briscoe.
Patrick spoke before word of the inspection failure broke. So did Briscoe, who said there are ''no hard feelings'' and he felt worse for Castroneves after the last race.
''Helio was the one racing to win that race not Danica Patrick,'' Briscoe said.
Joining Patrick in the front row is Buddy Rice, who turned a lap of 215.799 mph. Scheckter (215.731) is third, with two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. (215.717) fourth. Points leader and Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon (215.484) is fifth. Tony Kanaan, second in the standings, will start 13th (214.402). Castroneves (214.982) starts from the 11th spot.
Patrick was the second woman to win a pole Saturday, joining Sarah McCune, who led qualifying for the Infiniti Pro Series Chicagoland 100.
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