Winning takes on a new urgency for drivers still looking for first of season

Updated: November 7, 2008, 1:32 PM ET

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Matt Kenseth is still looking for his first win in 2008.

Start Your Engines

This story will not mention Jimmie Johnson.

(OK, now it won't.)

You know the story of this Chase: the guy on near-autopilot for a three-peat. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton have taken turns as nice diversions -- Edwards being the current flavor of the week after winning last week at Atlanta -- but odds are not in their favor of ending this playoff on top after the Nov. 16 finale. They'll still try to make a game of it, however.

But what about the other eight Chase qualifiers? ABC highlights them all in yellow at the top of your screen during races, but let's face it -- Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are no more a part of this shebang with three races remaining than Casey Mears, Dave Blaney and Kurt Busch.

That's not to say they will be playing out the string with three races to go, though. There's still much to gain Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ABC), from a win to finding something new on a 1.5-mile oval to just building any sort of momentum for next year -- for which full preparations will commence about 14 seconds after the checkered flag falls at Homestead.

"Since we're pretty much mathematically out of contention for the championship, we're just going out every week and trying to get the best finishes we can. We get to go try to win a race," said Matt Kenseth, ninth in points for Roush Fenway Racing. "There are certain things that happened this season that were out of our control, and things that happened that we could control -- we try to look at the controllable things and try to fix those and try to do better the next time and just keep trying to improve. So the overall goal is to do better each week. This week in Texas will be no different."

The carrot of winning is plenty, even more so for Chasers like Kenseth who qualified for the playoff without a win and haven't changed that statistic through its first seven races. If the 2003 Cup champion doesn't get a win at Texas, Phoenix or Homestead, it will be his first winless campaign since 2001.

Kevin Harvick, a quiet fifth in points for Richard Childress Racing, is also looking for a first win in 2008. Only one other season in his eight-year career, 2004, ended without a win.

Then there's four-time champion Jeff Gordon, the man with a 14-year streak of at least two wins.

"We are obviously trying to win races and focus on what we can do to improve the performance every weekend, but we're also trying to get momentum to carry into the offseason for next season," Gordon said last week. "I have no problem coming out of this season without a win if I think it can contribute to us going and winning five or more races next year and being a threat for the championship."

Perhaps, but here's a guess that fans of the No. 24 would take a first and two 43rds in the final three races and be extremely happy.

Speaking of firsts and lasts, Kyle Busch still has a lot to race for, despite his spectacular Chase collapse. He probably doesn't care much about crawling out of the 12th and final spot in Chase points (40 marks behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin), but he does want to find something, anything, to help spark the memories of his eight-win regular season.

Two top-5s in the last three races are a start, and there are three opportunities for more.

"We needed to get back to running in the top-10 and the top-5 and not have any problems before we could turn our focus back to winning like we were earlier this season. It was a step in the right direction," Busch said after a fifth-place day at Atlanta.

"We've been pretty good on the mile-and-a-half tracks, so I think Texas is our best chance to win a Cup race over the final three. We have some work to do on our flat-track stuff [Phoenix is flat], and I've always had bad luck at Homestead. But there are a lot of places that I've had some bad luck in the past that we've been able to turn it around at this year, so I'm hoping this weekend is another good one for us."

Even with the Sprint Cup out of reach for the majority of the Chasers, there's still something to chase.

Rocket Man

Carl Edwards: Tempting to hand this to Jimmie Johnson, again, after fishing out an improbable second-place finish to get one step closer to his three-peat. But how much more can be said?

Edwards, even with a win at Atlanta after a solid third at Martinsville in the middle of the Hendrick Motorsports freight train, is still a long shot to catch the No. 48. But at least the Roush Fenway No. 99 Ford has distanced himself from the silliness of the Kevin Harvick run-in at Lowe's Motor Speedway and the Talladega crash earlier this month. Johnson's hard enough to catch without all that -- just look at Atlanta, where Edwards drove a great race and picked up all of 15 points.

"It's like, 'All right. We have to win these races to beat him,' " Edwards said. "It's like you just want to go on, race some more and try to get it done. Every time they run that well, even if we win and they run that well, it's kind of a motivator. Makes you want to go home and work hard."

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

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Standings

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Slippery Slope

Burton

Jeff Burton: The Jimmie Johnson era isn't a time to throw up back-to-back finishes of 18th and 17th, as the Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevy did at Atlanta and Martinsville. In a flash, Burton went from an intriguing contender at the Chase's halfway mark, 69 points back in second, to 218 points back in fourth, to a guy who makes strange gridiron analogies with three races remaining.

"To put it in football terms, since it's football season, I am looking at this like we have six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, we're down by seven and it's fourth down," Burton said. "We need to decide to punt or to go for it. Right now, we're still going to punt. We'll rely on our defense and our entire team to play together as a team to win this game.

"Now, if we go into next week's race at Phoenix and are still in the same area, points position-wise, we'll need to change up our strategy a bit and go for it on fourth down."

Um, Jeff, have you seen the No. 48? Go long, man!

Going The Wrong Way

The No. 84: Didn't want to put this all on Scott Speed, having only run the past two races for Red Bull Racing Team, but the No. 84 Toyota is getting dangerously close to falling out of the top 35 in owner points. Speed finished 34th at Atlanta and 30th at Martinsville, following two finishes in the 30s from Craftsman Truck Series regular Mike Skinner. That stretch of futility has dropped the car to the owner-point bubble spot, with just an 80-point cushion over the No. 47 currently driven by Marcos Ambrose.

AJ Allmendinger fans are grinning ear to ear at all of it. He had the car four races ago, finishing a career-best ninth at Kansas only to lose the job. Now Allmendinger is running for Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and has two straight top-15s in what have been underperforming Dodges. You think Red Bull wouldn't have loved those results for the No. 84? There's some serious karma working here.

Showing Some Love For …

McMurray

Jamie McMurray: It's easy to forget the fifth Roush Fenway Ford, with three boys in the Chase and David Ragan on his way to finishing tops among non-Chasers.

McMurray, always rumored to be the odd man out at Roush when the team has to cut down to four Cup cars for 2010, needs to keep his name and his No. 26 up front as much as possible, like Sunday at Atlanta when he ran seventh. And two weeks ago at Charlotte when he ran fifth. It's the races like the one in between, 38th at Martinsville, which he still has to eliminate from the repertoire.