- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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For one final Sunday, NASCAR won't have to share the sporting world with the National Football League. So while millions gear up for the return of football games that count, NASCAR hopes to steal their attention with its own brand of drama.
In short, that comes down to whether Kasey Kahne can make the Chase for the Nextel Cup. To do so, he'll need an impressive rally. Or he'll need misfortune to befall the likes of Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch.
Kahne is 90 points behind 10th-place Martin with just two races left before the field is set for the 10-race showdown. Heading into the Sony HD 500 at California Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. (92 points ahead of Kahne), Stewart (97 ahead), Burton (105), Hamlin (111), Gordon (132) and Busch (138) all could lose their coveted spot if a part breaks or if they are caught in a wreck.
"We can't control what other teams do these next two races. Our focus is on [our car] and how we perform. Our objective is to make the Chase," Kahne said. "Two things must occur for that to happen. First, we have to have two good races -- wins would certainly help, but we definitely need top-five finishes.
"Then, a driver sixth through 10th in the standings must have a problem. A 100-point swing can happen in one race. We still have two opportunities to get in the Chase. We just have to do our part to put the [car] in a position to take advantage of every opportunity."
Counting on Martin to falter at the two-mile facility isn't a good bet. He has six top-10 and three top-five finishes in 12 races at the track. The veteran is the only driver in the track's history to have won a Cup, Busch and a Craftsman Truck Series race in addition to an International Race of Champions event.
Past success, of course, is no guarantee, and Martin knows that quite well. Still, he's looking forward to the race.
"California has really turned into a nice place to race and we've had our share of success there over the years," Martin said. "We were always good there from the start, running out of gas the first year and still finishing 10th and going back the next year and getting the win. It's really a track that fits into our strong suit and we are hoping for a good finish."
Martin didn't have that last weekend at Bristol, so he knows misfortune can only be a lap away. A pit miscue on Martin's part contributed to his downfall there, but that's in the past.
"That is not something that we can worry about now. Our task is to focus on the next race, and that race is this weekend at Fontana, and we are going into the race needing a strong run and a good finish," Martin said. "The point race is really close right now, with only about 50 points separating 10th from fourth, and we need to go there and beat all those guys around us and hopefully leave there one step closer to locking in our place in the Chase."
A year ago, Earnhardt Jr. might have headed to California with plenty of trepidation. His Chevrolets had struggled at tracks such as this one and its mirror image in Michigan. The team, though, has seemingly figured out the problem as evidenced by his recent performances at Michigan.
A third-place finish at Bristol bought Earnhardt Jr. a little breathing room, but he knows it's not really enough at this point.
There are 650 laps to go before the Chase (250 in California and 400 at Richmond) and that's plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong. Earnhardt Jr., though, isn't thinking about the negative when it comes to California.
"We're going with the most optimism we've had in several years leading into a Fontana race. It was a sore subject for us for a long time," he said. "I felt we made big gains at that track in February, just missing a top-10. My guys are real excited and I'm following their lead.
"Hopefully once we get there, I'll feel like I've known my way around there all along. Our finishes at Michigan this year [third and sixth] give us a lot to work with. We're taking the same car we ran at Michigan, same motor, and probably the same setup."
Having gone from third to 11th in points after consecutive last-place finishes in July, Earnhardt Jr. knows the sport can be fickle. And all that optimism can vanish in an instant.
"One bad race, one wreck, one blown motor can send you spiraling. But surviving Bristol was a step in the right direction," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I feel confident at Richmond that I can run in the top 10 there. I think all of us from sixth on back are going to really have to take advantage of every opportunity to gain points, whether it's leading a lap, using pit strategy to gain track position, that kind of stuff. Maximize every moment on the track each week."
Sixth-place Hamlin could only speak for his own approach, but it's a good bet that all the drivers ahead of Kahne will take a similar approach this weekend.
"For me, I think all of us are pretty much racing one car, and that's probably the 9 car [of Kahne]. Basically, we just keep ourselves within reaching distance of the 9 car," Hamlin said.
For Kahne, this weekend will truly be a case of California dreaming.
"This is a humbling sport. It's about ups and downs. That's what makes it so good," Kahne said. "We've had great cars this year. We're confident we have a car capable of winning at California.
"We've run well there, qualified on the pole, had a couple of top-five finishes and led laps. We've had success at Richmond. We need an opportunity and then [we have to] take advantage of it."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.