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If the stars align ... maybe, just maybe, Junior will have a chance

9/12/2007 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jeremy Mayfield leaned against his pit box at Richmond International Raceway, studying speed charts to figure what it would take for him to qualify for Saturday night's Nextel Cup race.

"It's going to be tough,'' he said on Friday.

But it wasn't the toughest position Mayfield had been in at RIR. He came to the three-quarter-mile track in September 2004 needing to win the race and lead the most laps to make the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup.

And even then he needed some luck because the four guys ahead of him had to struggle.

"Everything had to go perfect,'' Mayfield said.

It did.

Mayfield led a race-high 151 laps for five additional bonus points en route to the win over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett, who entered the race 11th through 13th, finished ninth or worse without leading a lap for additional points.

Then-Evernham Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne finished 24th to fall from ninth to 12th and open a spot for Mayfield in the top 10.

It was a dramatic night, the kind NASCAR chairman Brian France envisioned when he introduced the Chase format earlier that year.

"It was weird,'' said Mayfield, who now drives for Bill Davis Racing. "That whole week the team was calm, knowing we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. A lot of guys got conservative trying to hold on to what they had. We were trying to take what they had.

"To accomplish what we did, it was pretty amazing.''

There will be no such drama on Saturday.

Earnhardt is the only driver with a chance to get into the Chase, which has been expanded from 10 to 12 drivers.

And a chance is putting it kindly.

NASCAR's most popular driver is 128 points behind 12th-place Kevin Harvick, 141 behind No. 11 Kurt Busch and 161 behind Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Martin Truex Jr.

It'll take more than luck for the red No. 8 to compete for a title.

It'll take a miracle.

"Junior is in a situation where it's the fourth quarter of a football game and they're down by 21 points,'' said Jeff Burton, who is seventh in points and has secured a spot in the field.

"Not only do they have to do great, the other teams have to have bad luck or make a mistake that allows them to step in the door that's open.''

For Earnhardt to make the Chase he must:

• Finish no worse than fifth, lead the most laps and have Harvick finish last.

• Finish fourth and lead one lap and have Harvick finish last.

• Finish third and lead no laps and have Harvick finish last.

• Win the race, lead the most laps and have Harvick finish 33rd or worse or Busch 37th or worse.

• Win without leading the most laps and have Harvick finish 34th or worse or Busch 39th or worse.

That makes what Mayfield accomplished, erasing a 55-point deficit over 10th, look like a Sunday ride in the park.

"I'll run hard and leave the rest to chance,'' Earnhardt said.

Nobody since Mayfield has come from more than 30 points down at Richmond to make the Chase. Kahne was 30 points out a year ago when he finished third to knock out Tony Stewart, who finished 18th at RIR.

Ryan Newman was one point out in 2005 when he finished 12th to pass Jamie McMurray, who finished 40th.

"It can be done,'' said Mark Martin. "Things just have to really be pretty spectacular to work out.''

Martin commended Earnhardt for even being in this position under the scrutiny of announcing he'll leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. after this season for Hendrick Motorsports, being penalized 100 points earlier this year for having an illegal rear-wing mount and the normal circus that surrounds him.

"Dale Jr. and his team have done an awesome job this year,'' he said. "They have really, really run well. They've just had some problems on the track. They're not ones to say the penalty has hurt them, but a hundred points is a major setback.

"I'm very proud of the way they've run, especially the last several weeks. They're gonna fight right down to the end.''

The fight likely is for naught. Even if Earnhardt wins and leads the most laps he could be on the outside looking in if Harvick finishes 32nd.

"It's real easy to lose [points], but it's harder than hell to make them up,'' Truex said.

It can be done. Things just have to really be pretty spectacular to work out.

Mark Martin

Earnhardt never imagined he'd be in this position. He predicted earlier this year, before four blown engines spoiled good runs, that he'd make the Chase without a problem.

"It's just unfortunate, because I really felt we should have made it,'' he said. "I really, really felt like we should have. I didn't think it would be close. I'm really disappointed we weren't able to realize our potential.''

But not once has Earnhardt compromised his integrity. Not once has he let his lame-duck situation be an excuse.

And if he doesn't make the Chase, which he's all but resigned to, he'll focus on the positives.

"There's a lot of pressure that won't be on me for 10 races,'' he said. "There's other things I'll be able to do as far as appearances and things. I'll also be able to look a little more harder into the future in preparing for next year and doing the switch with the teams and moving over.''

Asked if he might help his future teammate get into the Chase, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon laughed.

"If he asks nicely, I'm sure we can arrange something,'' he said. "Those are all things that happen as the race unfolds. Obviously, both me and Jimmie [Johnson] are trying to get bonus points and get the best position. That's our agenda.

"If we can't accomplish that and there's something we can do to help Junior get in ... he's a great asset to the Chase and the sport.''

Even with a little help from his friends, Earnhardt is a long shot at best, something Mayfield knows all too well.

"It's going to be tough,'' Mayfield said. "Anything can happen, but that's going to be tough. Oh, man. Just to do what we did, everything had to be dead perfect.

"He's going to have to be dead-on.''

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.