Race for the Chase an uphill climb for 2007 qualifiers Harvick, Truex

Updated: July 4, 2008, 10:27 AM ET

AP Photo/David Duprey

Kevin Harvick has had his share of back luck on road courses, including Watkins Glen in 2007.

Start Your Engines

Kevin Harvick caused more trouble for himself than just making a few fellow drivers mad with a chain-reaction spinout seven laps from the finish Sunday at Infineon Raceway.

He's now on the outside looking in to the Sprint Cup playoffs with 10 races to go.

You'll hear it a lot during this weekend's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at the mile oval in New Hampshire -- the "Race for the Chase" is on. That's NASCAR-speak for the last 10 races prior to the start of the 10-race dash for the Cup. The points awarded Sunday are just the same as your average March race, but the urgency is enhanced when you're not among the top 12 in points.

Only the top 12 qualify; if you're merely two points back in 13th, tough luck. That's where the Richard Childress Racing No. 29 is after a certain top-10 and possible top-5 finish turned into a 30th-place disappointment at Sonoma, Calif., dropping the team three spots in points and beyond the Chase cutoff for the first time since the season opener.

Harvick, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all were Chasers last year but are outside the top 12. Busch's Penske Dodge is all but toast, 22nd in the standings and nearly 300 points out of the mix. Truex has been on the bubble all season but isn't a lost cause yet, in 17th place and 107 points behind 12th.

"We've got a great team, and I think we're more than capable of being in the Chase," said Truex, of Dale Earnhardt Inc. "But it's all about results, and we haven't got them. So we need to go out and get them now. We're running out of time."

Fortunately for the two Chevy drivers, Loudon, N.H., is a favorable place for their Chase drive to gain steam. The flat oval is one of Harvick's best half-dozen spots on the schedule, with an average finish of 12.6 and eight top-10s in 14 starts, including a win in the New Hampshire Chase race in 2006. (The track can boast being the start of the Race for the Chase and the Chase itself.)

"Our flat-track program has been really good over the past few years. Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix have been places that have been really good to us," Harvick said. "I like this type of track because it's flat, I started my racing career on flat tracks out west. The track hasn't changed a lot and we've had a lot of success here in the past, so that always makes it fun to go back to."

Outside Dover, Del., where Truex won his only Cup race, New Hampshire is statistically his top track, with a third and a fifth in last year's races.

"I'm not one to make predictions, but I like our chances on Sunday," Truex said. "We've led some laps and gotten some great finishes on the Cup side and we've won a Nationwide Series race there [in 2005]."

Truex has a bit of a hill to climb, as does Harvick, but look at the man they're after for the 12th and final Chase spot. Matt Kenseth, 22nd in points and seemingly dead in the water 10 races into the season, has rattled off six consecutive top-eight finishes in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford to rocket inside the Chase cutoff with a great chance to keep his perfect playoff record intact (Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to qualify for all four Chases). It's hard not to be impressed at the heavy lifting he's done already, though he still has to at least maintain his spot for 10 more races.

"I don't know if it's ever too early to look at [points] -- you always look at it on the way home, especially if you're moving up to see where you're at and see what happened," Kenseth said after an eighth-place run at Infineon, the one track where he had yet to finish in the top 10. "But the bottom line is really you do the best you can every week, try to finish as high as you can, try to lead laps and do all that and [let] the points take care of themselves. So, really, it's not a strategy when you race hard and try to be smart and do the right things."

Rocket Man

Kyle Busch: How high had Rowdy raised the bar this season? He failed to win in a half-dozen races on the Cup, Nationwide and Truck circuits over back-to-back weeks from June 6-15 and some wondered if his momentum was slowing. Criticism was especially pointed from some over his Texas/Nashville/Pocono three-day, three-series weekend, as if the 23-year-old were exhausting himself for rest of the summer. C'mon.

"When you get into a slump of two weeks, it's not that bad," Busch said.

He's still the best guy out there, proving it again with a road-course win at Sonoma. Earning a right-turn trophy completes the circuit for Busch as far as winning on various tracks. Now he's got wins on a road course, short track (Bristol), restrictor-plate (Talladega), 1.5-miler (Atlanta), fan-indifferent (California) and the devilishly tough (Darlington). He just needs a championship, and we can't wait for the Chase to start to see how he fares with the title on the line.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Hamlin

Denny Hamlin: No need to sound the alarm over Chase contention; the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 isn't in grave danger of falling out of the top 12. But Hamlin was fourth after a terrific five-race stretch from Bristol to Talladega through April that included his Martinsville win, and sixth after an OK 14th-place at Michigan just a week ago. A too-eventful day on the road course in 27th, however, dropped him to eighth.

The Toyota driver has had a few off days in recent weeks, with a pair of 24ths at Richmond and Charlotte and a last-place crash at Dover. Top-5s sprinkled in -- like a third at Pocono -- ease the damage, points-wise, but make one wonder if there's enough consistency for the No. 11 to be a title threat.

Going The Wrong Way

Gordon

Robby Gordon: Road courses are where the No. 7 Dodge is supposed to make its mark, and Gordon's eighth-place qualifying effort -- by far his best of the season -- was a promising start.

Instead, Sunday at Sonoma was miserable as Gordon ran out of gas 40 laps from the end and was hit by Kurt Busch while trying to get back to the pits. Later he had a tire go flat, and in the end all he could do was limp home 36th, two laps down.

"It's really disappointing for us to leave this event with a 36th-place finish, especially since it is such a good track for us," Gordon said. "Fuel mileage was a big concern for us today and where we were focusing most of our attention. The crew gave me a great car and we just ran one lap short of making our second pit stop for fuel, which would have definitely set us up for at least a top-10 finish and a good points day."

Showing Some Love For …

Gilliland

David Gilliland: Always good to see a Yates Ford running well, maybe more so when it's Gilliland's. The likable Californian has made solid strides in his second full Cup season, currently 21st in points after finishing 28th last year, and a runner-up finish Sunday at Sonoma (from a 31st starting spot) was a career best.

There have been a handful of good days this season, from a ninth at Bristol to three consecutive 15ths to a pair of 16ths recently at Dover and Pocono. Those aren't top-5s, but then again this isn't exactly a Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs operation in terms of budgets. But the equipment is markedly improved.

"I feel like our performance has improved 90 percent from what it was last year. Our cars are much better," Gilliland said.