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Pressure builds on Chase bubble boys

8/18/2010 - NASCAR

Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer have been here before. So have Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

They've all been on the Chase bubble, inside or outside, with three races to go before the 10-race playoff starts. They all know the feeling. It's the toughest part of the season, a high-stress situation where no one wants to be.

But at least these guys know the drill. Martin and Bowyer were here one year ago.

Bowyer was 14th at this point last season, but only 58 points behind Martin. Three races later, Martin was in the Chase and starting No. 1, but Bowyer fell to 15th and missed the playoff for the first time since 2006.

Now Bowyer is the man trying to hold on and Martin is the guy hoping to get in the show. Bowyer is 12th, 35 points ahead of Martin.

"Obviously, these are important times for us," Bowyer said at Michigan. "The pressure is definitely there, but I'm not too worried just yet. There's a lot of racing left and plenty of time to get a lot of things accomplished."

Martin was in the unusual spot last season of either starting the Chase on top or not making it at all. He had the most victories with four, but was clinging to the 12th and final transfer spot by only 12 points after 23 races.

"It's real different than last year," Martin said before his 28th-place finish Sunday at Michigan dropped him to 13th. "Last year, it was so intense because we knew that if we got in the Chase, we could win it, and nearly did. So it would've been a major crime to have missed the Chase.

"This year, we have got to build momentum to be relevant once we get in. Just floundering around is not what we want to do. We would like to make the Chase and peak at the right time and be a contender. That's a stretch, but that's what we're striving for."

The other four guys in the top 17 still hope for a three-race surge -- a minor miracle, really -- that could propel them into the playoff. Newman is 103 points back in 14th and Earnhardt Jr. is 129 back in 17th.

I've got good news and bad news.

It can be done: Matt Kenseth was 15th, 104 points outside the Chase cutoff (which was 10th at the time), in 2005 but raced his way in. And Tony Stewart was 127 points inside the cutoff with three races to go in 2006 but fell out.

And the bad news? Kenseth is the only driver to make up more than a 49-point deficit with three races remaining to climb into the Chase.

But the upcoming Bristol race Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is an event in which a contending driver easily can find himself 10 laps down after an early crash on the tiny half-mile oval.

"Everyone wants that last spot, and we are racing hard for it every week," Newman said before finishing 23rd Sunday. "There's a lot of pressure."

The pressure showed when Newman and Joey Logano almost came to blows after the race. Logano got loose while running side by side with Newman and hit the left-rear quarter panel of Newman's car, causing Newman to spin and ruining what would have been a decent day.

Every little on-track incident can make or break a driver's Chase chances now.

Kahne's 14th-place finish Sunday didn't help him gain any ground, something he has done before when he needed it.

He was 49 points back with three races to go in 2006 when he made the 10-driver Chase by winning at Fontana and finishing third at Richmond in the final two regular-season events.

But Kahne, 126 points out of 12th in 16th, has a much different situation now as a lame duck at Richard Petty Motorsports.

"The guys want to work hard and do a good job through the rest of the season," Kahne said. "Hopefully that doesn't change. I don't see why it would. I have seen it change in the past with certain people and certain teams, but I don't see why it would with ours."

Newman was 44 points out in 2004 in 13th but made up three spots to compete in the inaugural Chase. McMurray is the only man on this list who hasn't made a Chase, but he fell one spot short in 2004.

And then there's Junior, easily the biggest disappointment in Sprint Cup this season.

Earnhardt never has battled his way back in down the stretch, but he was 10th in 2006 (the last year with only 10 playoff drivers) with three to go and managed to hold his playoff spot.

That must seem like a lifetime ago. The No. 88 Chevy is a team in turmoil, with constant infighting, bickering between Earnhardt and crew chief Lance McGrew, and consistent underachievement.

Without one of the best three-race comebacks in NASCAR history, Earnhardt will miss the Chase for the third time in the past four seasons.

After a 19th-place finish Sunday, Earnhardt said he really doesn't care whether he makes the Chase. But he did care two days earlier.

"I mean, I feel like it's not impossible," Earnhardt said then. "The problem is, if we keep running like we're running, that ain't going to get it done. It's pretty frustrating to not be consistently in there."

They've all been here before. One of them is going to make the 2010 Chase, and five of them are not.

"We'll keep digging," Martin said. "Every race is a new race. We're going to go down swinging."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.