Plenty of contenders for 11th
The sting still smarts for Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, but neither has time to tend to their wounds.
Two races removed from missing the cut for NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup, both showed focus and determination on the racetrack in their first race for 11th place, the highest either can finish now.
Rookie Kahne and McMurray finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and intend to make the competition for 11th-place -- which pays a $1 million bonus and a final invitation to get on stage at the end-of-the-year banquet -- as spirited as the scrum for the title.
"We're having our own little battle for that 11th spot," Kahne said. "Winning a million would be pretty awesome. It would be real exciting if we did that -- like we accomplished everything we needed to this year.
"Sure, we're disappointed that we didn't get into the top 10 for the chase (for the title), but it just wasn't meant to be. Now, the important thing is how we respond."
So far, the response has been positive. Finishing one spot ahead of McMurray has Kahne nipping at McMurray's 11th-place perch. Putting things in perspective, Kahne quells the hurt from not making the top 10 with the understanding that he's still only a rookie.
"The goals we set for the No. 9 team at the beginning of the year are still in reach," he said. "We still want to finish in the top 15 in points and win the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. We still want to get to victory lane this year. We've been close and we're returning to tracks where we had a very competitive car the first time around."
But standing in his way is McMurray -- who came ever so close to making the top 10 with his performance at Richmond two weekends ago. It wasn't to be, but McMurray isn't viewing 11th place as an also-ran position. For him, it's the key to proving his team's worth and the best way to kick next season off by gaining momentum this year.
"I think we feel like we belong in that top 10 chase, but all you can do is try to win races and get ready for next year," he said.
McMurray said he wasn't worried about losing heart the remainder of this season. Eleventh place has never been a jewel, but this year it's worth more than ever.
"Just because we're not in the top 10 doesn't mean we're just going to ride around these last 10 races," McMurray said. "Our goals now are to win races and hold down 11th place in points. If we can do that, then I feel like we can look back on not making the playoffs and still feel like we've had a successful season."
But to do that means not only to hold off a challenge from a very talented rookie, but also from a few established NASCAR talents.
Just trailing Kahne are Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett -- all of whom are capable of stealing 11th.
"It's going to be a tough battle for that last spot," Harvick said. "And it will probably come down to the last race or so."
Harvick said he's acutely aware of what it's going to take for his No. 29 Chevy team to steal that spot.
"It's going to take us running in the top-five like we did last weekend in Loudon and a bunch of other guys making mistakes over these last nine races," he said. "I know it may seem like a lot of time to make up ground but it really isn't. We want that final spot and so does everybody else. If we can stay focused, we've got a good chance."
Perhaps no one is hungrier for that final spot, though, than Dale Jarrett. Early in this season, after Kahne established himself as one of those special rookies, Kahne and his team began harboring dreams of racing for a title. Those are dreams that McMurray, Harvick and Labonte each harbored coming into the season.
But for Jarrett, even 11th-place seemed far away. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Jarrett and Co., a time to fix the problems of the past few years and set up for a possible title run next season. The fact that he came close to making the top 10 this season, and has a legitimate shot at 11th now, has him salivating.
"We've accomplished a lot this year already in comparison to where this team was a year ago," Jarrett said. "We think we can be a threat for the next nine weeks, but we also hope to learn some things that will help us in the off season in getting ready for next year. If we can finish this year on a high note, then we can use that to our advantage in gearing up for 2005."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.