- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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A year ago, no one could conceive of NASCAR staging its Chase for the Nextel Cup without Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. But when it played out exactly that way, the sport kept going without missing a beat.
The same would hold true this year, even if the defending champion weren't among the 10 drivers in the running come New Hampshire. It might be easy just to focus on Kasey Kahne's battle to unseat 10th-place Jeff Burton, but they're hardly the only drivers on the bubble heading into Richmond.
Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. can again miss the Chase if one of them has a bad night while Kahne rolls in Saturday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400. Then again, the same can be said for Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin or Tony Stewart in addition to Burton.
Yes, that Tony Stewart -- the defending series champion who seemed as much of a lock to make the Chase entering this season as Gordon did a year ago.
Scenarios abound on how the drivers in question can secure a spot, with Stewart needing to finish seventh or better to be locked in no matter what.
In theory, at least, that should bode well for a driver with three Cup wins, five top fives and 10 top 10s at the three-quarter mile track. Then again, in 15 Cup starts at the track, his average finish is 12th, so it's clear there are no guarantees.
Recent history, though, is on his side as he's finished second, seventh and sixth in his last three starts there. Stewart vows he's feeling no pressure heading into the race.
"To be honest, I've never fallen into pressure. All eight years we've been here in the points, we've just strictly dealt with it one week at a time," Stewart said. "That's the easiest way to approach it. What you do this week is this week. Then once this weekend is over and done, you worry about next week. It's literally that simple for us."
Burton agrees that it doesn't take a lot of thought to know what he must do this weekend. It's the same thing every driver but Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson has to do, though Harvick at least has the most breathing room, sitting 147 points ahead of Kahne.
"If you think about Stewart or Mark, myself or Kahne, it's a matter of going out and running well," Burton said. "None of us will have a chance of being in the Chase if we don't run well, unless someone were to have trouble. But we can't control what other people do.
"The only thing we can do is control what we do. Certainly having the opportunity at Richmond is really exciting and it's what it ought to be. For us, we're just focusing on going there and putting forth our best effort we can, and that's really all we can do."
Having raced his way into the field at Richmond in 2004, Martin is no stranger to the task at hand. And like veterans Stewart and Burton, he's keeping things in perspective.
Panic will likely get a driver nowhere, so Martin is looking at it as just another race in what's expected to be his final season in a Roush Racing Cup car.
"All we can do is go there and run our race," Martin said. "Everyone wants to point to one or two races at the end here and talk about the pressure, but the truth is, this race isn't worth any more or less points than the second race or the 13th race or any other race this season. It's all about what you do each week. We had chances early on to put some distance on this thing, and for one reason or another, we weren't able to capitalize on some of the chances we had.
"So it does come down to this week in Richmond, but all we can do is approach it like we have the rest of the races. We'll put our best foot forward and go out and try to win this race. That's what we do each week. What I can tell you is that nobody on this team plans on giving up and we are focused and well aware of the task at hand."
Hamlin, leading the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings, heads to his hometown track seventh in points, but just one point behind Earnhardt Jr. Hamlin finished second behind Earnhardt at Richmond in May, and Hamlin would like nothing better than making the Chase while winning in front of his family and friends.
Win or not come Saturday, Hamlin just wants to secure a spot in the Chase.
"This entire team feels like we have done, and are doing, all we can to make this Chase," Hamlin said. "We are running really well at the moment, turning in top 10s and finishing races. We'll approach this week like any other race in our preparation and the goal is to continue this momentum through Richmond and see where it takes us.
"If we make the Chase we'll look to compete each and every week for the final 10 races. If we don't make it, we'll be disappointed but we'll be satisfied knowing we more than met the expectations we set for ourselves."
Having spent some time outside the top 10 earlier this year, Earnhardt knows that returning to a track where he's the most recent winner is no guarantee. It does boost his spirits, though.
"I'm pretty excited going to Richmond. For us, I'm not sure there's a better track on the schedule than Richmond," Earnhardt said. "It's a very good track for me and I have a lot of fun racing there. Every time we go, we know it's an opportunity to win. I know we'll have a good car, so I think I can put it up front and win again.
"That's the mind-set. But anything can happen to you. You can get involved in crashes or do something stupid, so we'll try to be smart, and we'll try to lock ourselves into the Chase. We're peaking at the right time. We've had some really good runs the last few weeks, and they've been at tracks that are completely different from each other. That has me optimistic that if we do make the Chase, we can really make a run at the championship."
Gordon, meanwhile, can secure a spot by finishing 25th, but his last three starts at the track have resulted in finishes of 30th or worse, so the four-time champion will need to turn that around.
He's looking at this race as an opportunity to improve, and will likely be hoping to have a car as strong as Stewart's seemingly always are at Richmond.
"You want to make sure that your car is adjustable," Stewart said. "We start the race at the end of the day where it's usually pretty hot, but as night comes the track cools down and it changes quite a bit. When we tested there a couple of years ago, we actually tried to make the car drive badly so that we could figure out ways to make it drive well again. You've got to have adjustability, because you know for a fact that the track isn't going to stay the same all night long."
The big question, though, is whether the point standings will look the same at the end of the night, or whether Kahne will have supplanted one of those currently in front of him to make the Chase.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.