Chase shakeups likely to rattle contenders some more
INDIANAPOLIS -- The suits at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., have to be smiling. With five races remaining in the race for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are in the top 10.
But whoever is smiling better also have their fingers crossed. Today's positions in the standings aren't likely to be the same next week after Watkins Glen, or the following week after Michigan.
A lot can happen before the final positioning race Sept. 9 at Richmond.
In fact, it's happening already.
Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard was another in a parade of events where nearly everyone but penthouse-dwellers Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth saw their ranks change, in some cases drastically.
Kevin Harvick's third-place finish at Indianapolis allowed him to tie Kyle Busch for fourth in the points. Denny Hamlin (now seventh), Gordon (eighth) and defending champion Tony Stewart (ninth) moved up a notch. Earnhardt moved out of the dreaded 11th spot into the top 10.
Kasey Kahne, on the other hand, fell from seventh to 11th following a last-lap crash that sent him plummeting to a 36th-place finish.
"We still have plenty of time to get it in," said Kahne, taking the optimist's view.
He's right. The standings should be printed in pencil rather than ink, they can be erased so easily. From Harvick and Busch, the margin to Kahne is 158 points, which is almost as many points that separate first from 43rd in a Cup race (146).
And if you don't think such a precipitous drop is possible, ask Junior. When he finished last at New Hampshire on July 16, it meant falling from third to seventh in the standings. Another 43rd the next week at Pocono added up to another four-spot drop, to 11th.
That trend had to be reversed this weekend, and to do so the team took a late gamble. When a yellow flew for track debris with 17 laps remaining, most of the leaders pitted for fresh tires. Earnhardt and Kyle Busch were among the few who stayed out, opting to finish the race with tires picked up nearly 20 laps earlier.
The two took the green flag in front, and on Lap 151 Earnhardt ducked under Busch in Turn 2 for the lead. Junior's legions of fans could be heard throughout the track, but his Chevrolet was clearly a sitting duck for the fresh rubber of Johnson's car, and then Kenseth's.
Still, Earnhardt held on for sixth, his second-highest finish in six races. The call to stay out under yellow wasn't a ploy for a win but instead a successful points grab, the kind of strategy that likely will come into play again for several teams in the next five weeks.
"We took a chance and made it work. But we just got lucky," he said.
"Junior lucked out, big-time. He was horrible all day," said Gordon, who fought through his own early troubles and finished 16th. "That's going to hurt us, and the fact that we just weren't up there where we needed to be because of our problems. The next couple weeks are going to be real important."
That's an understatement. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt residing at 8-9-10 in the Chase and separated by a grand total of 15 points will be a juicy story line going into Watkins Glen, and they're not the only ones who will face the "Can you make it?" questions.
Rookie Denny Hamlin climbed back into the top 10 after his second win at Pocono, then rose one more spot with his 10th at Indy. On the flip side, Greg Biffle fell out of the top 10 at Pocono and 33rd at the Brickyard following a last-lap wreck with Robby Gordon was a huge setback, keeping him in 12th position and 115 points behind Earnhardt.
Look for another reshuffle come Sunday evening, with many of the sport's biggest names likely included. Maybe last year's most surprising Chase absentees, Gordon and Earnhardt, will fall out of the top 10 again or move one step closer to paydirt. Either way it will be an intriguing ride, for their fans and conspiracy theorists who wonder whether No. 8's and No. 24's efforts are factors in NASCAR's vow to tweak the Chase format.
"If [chairman and CEO] Brian France wants to create the point system so that me, Tony or Junior have a shot at winning the championship every year, then I'm all for it," Gordon said, laughing.
At least this year, it won't be nearly that easy.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to espn.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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