Drivers out of the Chase strive to prove worth
Greg Biffle feels like a nobody. Last year's Nextel Cup runner-up knew this day would come, but he admits he's unprepared, nonetheless. After a season of finishing closer to 20th, he has averaged a ninth-place finish the past four weekends -- but has anybody noticed? Worse, does anybody care?
Biffle could finish in 11th place, good enough for a $1 million bonus and momentum for next season -- but does it matter?
The answer to that depends on whom you ask. If you ask Biffle, he'll stick by what he said at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this year:
"If you don't make the Chase, you're a nobody."
"Every question has been about the Chase, and none of it involves me," Biffle said shortly after this season's Chase began. "That's why I said that at Talladega."
And he's not the only one feeling neglected.
"Certainly, the attention is on those 10 teams that are in the Chase, as well it should be," 1999 champion Dale Jarrett said. "They've earned that, and they deserve that right for that to happen."
What do the others deserve? Jarrett said the remaining races are an opportunity to prove you deserve to race among stock car racing's best. The motivation for non-Chasers varies, but the bottom line, at least according to some veterans, is that each of the last 10 races for a non-Chase racer represents an opportunity to show some gratitude.
"It's an opportunity to show what you're made of and what your team is made of; that you'll keep working through that and trying to get better until that last lap is finished at Homestead," said Jarrett, who finished third last week. "I look at every week as an opportunity regardless of the fact that we're not in the Chase. This is a chance that you have -- you don't take for granted just the opportunity to race in these races. You don't just go and say, 'Well, we've got 10 more to go, let's just go finish this off.' That's not in my makeup."
Although some stay motivated by pride, others also look to the last final races of the season as an opportunity to get a leg up on the Chase drivers for next year.
"We plan to use these final races as a test for next season," Biffle's crew chief Doug Richert said. "But we will be there to contend for the win every week, as well."
"My goals are what they've been all year, and that's to try and get this team back to where it's competing in a respectable fashion," Jarrett said. "Last year, we won a race in those last 10 races, so I think you keep battling hard. I think you start doing a lot of things in preparation for the next season, and the way this system is, it gives you that opportunity to do that. There will be a lot of teams that will start that process of focusing on their upcoming season, whether that's making changes or just trying some things that maybe they didn't want to get involved in before the Chase cutoff.
"I think it gives them that chance so you see a little bit more of that risk taking than you would have before the Chase started, especially if you were in that 10th to 15th range, trying to put your team into the Chase."
For others, the preparation for next year has less to do with letting Chase aspirations go than with taking advantage of extra seat time in a new car. Elliott Sadler, for instance, started racing with Evernham Motorsports in August. His Chase hopes with his old No. 38 Robert Yates Racing team had long since died and, with a new team, his hopes of making the Chase in Evernham's No. 19 were never alive. The whole reason for Sadler to make the switch into that car late this year was to work on communication, chemistry and strategy against actual competition when there's nothing to lose.
"These final 10 races are very important," Sadler said. " We want to have everything in order for the start of the 2007 season. The communication continues to improve. We're definitely headed in the right direction, but now it's time to step up the pace. We want to finish strong this year, build momentum and start the 2007 season ready to challenge for a spot in the Chase along with our teammates from Evernham Motorsports."
For some drivers, motivation comes from the same place it did when they were kids: Wreck or win -- nothing in between.
"We're now able to do all those things that we would not normally be able to do in a points situation when you can't take those chances," said Tony Stewart, who won Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway. "When it comes down to a fuel mileage deal, we have the flexibility now to [take chances]. We can gamble on pit strategy. I guess the pressure is off -- not that that's what we were looking to do, by any means.
"Even though you try and win the race, a lot of times in a points situation, you can't take chances doing that. It's our goal each week to win. We weren't able to always do that, but now, for sure, 100 percent, we can go out there and strictly do whatever it takes to win."
For a guy like Stewart, though, focusing on winning is easy once you've gotten over the heartbreak of missing the Chase. Stewart is a two-time champion and is in no danger of losing his ride or his sponsor. For some drivers, missing the Chase puts some pressure -- even if only from themselves -- on the rest of the season.
"I still believe that we can get better and we can draw attention to ourselves," Jarrett said. "We have an obligation to our team and to our sponsors to give it everything that we can. Just because it didn't work out that we were a part of the Chase, I think that's motivation to go work harder."
Sponsors are obviously not happy to see drivers miss the Chase, but they know the limited media coverage bestowed on non-Chase racers will be on the guys running up front. So going for broke isn't always an option. In some cases, it means settling for third instead of risking much worse for a slim chance at first. In other cases, it means holding off on implementing grand new strategies and setups and overhauling personnel in hopes of salvaging the best end-of-season ranking possible.
"We didn't make the Chase, which was disappointing, but we still have a chance to race for wins and for 11th place during the next 10 races," Carl Edwards said. "I want to make the most of that opportunity."
Opportunity is the word that emerges more than any other. For every non-Chase racer in the garage, the opportunity presented could be a different thing. But one opportunity all agree missing the Chase presents is to prove Biffle wrong -- to prove they are not nobodies.
"It hurts your pride," Biffle said. "It makes you hungrier so that you never miss [the Chase] again."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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