Auto Club Speedway to play deciding role in Chase one last time

Updated: September 5, 2008, 12:25 PM ET

AP Photo/Mark Avery

Carl Edwards celebrates his February 2008 Sprint Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway.

Start Your Engines

Starting next year, there will be a lot less sweating during the second race date at Auto Club Speedway.

With NASCAR moving the Fontana, Calif., track off the Labor Day weekend it had occupied since 2004 and into October, fans won't have to suffer the Inland Valley heat waves anymore. And next year the Chase will be set by the Fontana fall race, with the 12 title contenders already three races into their playoff.

This year, however, there's still plenty for drivers to sweat at the Pepsi 500 (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN), in and out of the car. The bottom third of the Chase field remains very much in the air, with four drivers trying to hold on and two outsiders hoping to bump their way in.

"The level of intensity has certainly risen the past few weeks, and there's definitely more pressure," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "We have to be sure we're on top of our game. We can't make mistakes and we have to be sure we're doing everything right."

Gordon, at ninth in points, is probably the highest-ranked driver who still has reason to be nervous. Eighth-place Kevin Harvick is 117 points clear of 12th place, occupied by Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, and running well enough lately (fourth at Bristol, five top-10s in past six starts) to probably be out of trouble. Greg Biffle (seventh in points), Tony Stewart (sixth) and Jeff Burton (fifth) have bigger cushions and are all but locked in.

But Gordon is just 96 points ahead of the cutoff, Matt Kenseth is 66 points ahead and Denny Hamlin is clear by 45. That's not enough to rest easy with two races remaining before the Chase, this one and next week at Richmond.

Fortunately for Kenseth, the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval is favorable to Fords, especially his No. 17 Roush Fenway Fusion. His average finish there in 13 starts is a sparkling 9.9, and he hasn't finished worse than seventh in his past six starts, including two wins.

"It's definitely a track I look forward to racing. The track is just a real big, wide track. You get a little bit of everything there," said Kenseth, who has a streak of qualifying for every Chase. "You get a lot of speed, especially now in the new cars because they have less drag, so you really go fast down the straightaways. It's got some pretty big corners where you can run around the bottom or you can run up high, and you're always kind of searching for a groove, so the racing is always a lot of fun."

Roush Fenway teammate David Ragan also has favored Fontana in his brief career, with finishes between 12th and 16th in three starts. Should he finish 12th or better this week he'll likely erase the 12-point gap separating him from the Chase field.

Ragan and Gillett Evernham's Kasey Kahne are the two drivers left with realistic chances of still Chasing. Kahne fell out of the top 12 last week after a second consecutive 40th-place finish, but also has good California vibes to fall back on with a Labor Day weekend win in 2006 and a ninth-place finish in this year's winter race.

"I'm glad that we're in a position to still make the Chase and have a good shot at it. We ran into some problems the last two weeks that set us back," Kahne said. "I was looking at sixth in points and being able to get there [into the Chase]. Now, we're a little further behind. I'm just excited to be in the position that we're in. I have a real legitimate shot at making the Chase and a great shot at running well this weekend. California is a good track for us and so is Richmond."

In other words, never let them see you sweat.

Rocket Man

Carl Edwards: The cooldown tussle at Bristol between the surging Roush Fenway driver and points leader Kyle Busch earned the two a six-week probation, but c'mon. NASCAR officials should have whispered "thanks" to the combatants after handing down their penalty, as this Chase just got a whole lot more interesting.

"I feel like I was extremely justified to do what I did, I needed to do it, and that's the way it went. Let's make it real clear: I'm not apologizing for it, and that's it," Edwards said after moving the No. 18 Toyota out of the way with 30 laps to go and nabbing his sixth win of the season.

We'd never ask you to apologize, Carl. In fact, don't change a thing.

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

Kahne

Kasey Kahne: If the Chase started today there would be no Dodge representation, thanks to the free fall of the No. 9. Kahne finished 40th and dropped three spots in points for the second consecutive week after getting caught in the big wreck on Lap 215 at Bristol.

He's 56 points behind Bowyer for the cherished 12th spot (with David Ragan in between, 44 ahead of Kahne), but there is time remaining and history in his favor. In 2006, when the Chase included the top 10 in points, Kahne was 11th and 90 points out with two races to go. He won at California and finished third at Richmond to make it. If he could duplicate that, he'd not only qualify for the Chase but would be reseeded third based on wins.

Going The Wrong Way

Burton

Jeff Burton: Can't fault the veteran for a second-to-last finish at Bristol -- he got caught in a chain reaction crash.

"You can't lose sleep over things like that," the Richard Childress Racing driver said.

But how well will he sleep going into the Chase? Burton had 10 top-10s and no finish lower than 13th through the first 14 races of the season, but has one top-10 and an average finish of 19.6 in the past 10 races. His four top-5s on the year are tied with teammate Clint Bowyer for the fewest among Chase drivers, and in this year's playoff anything less than consistent top-5s probably won't be titleworthy.

Showing Some Love For …

Bowyer

Clint Bowyer: Speaking of the No. 07, his seventh-place finish at Bristol salvaged the season. He was caught up in the same wreck that doomed Kahne but was able to continue after making three trips to pit road under the yellow that followed the red flag. The right front of his Chevy wasn't a museum piece, but it finished 500 laps.

"That was a great night. We got caught up in someone else's mess and Gil [Martin, crew chief] and all the guys did an awesome job fixing the car so we could keep racing," Bowyer said. "It was a total team effort."

He moved into the Chase field, but there's still work to do. Bowyer is sitting in the 12th spot with Ragan 12 points behind and Kahne not out of it.