With so much at stake, things could get ugly
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Ryan Newman fears road rage might play a decisive role in who makes the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
He might be right.
With 10 drivers vying for the final four spots in the race for the Nextel Cup title, Newman expects desperate measures Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
"You'd like to expect clean racing, but I know [this race] last year it wasn't clean racing," Newman said. "There were a couple drivers who intentionally tried to do some things to make their way into the Chase, and you never know what's going to happen.
"It's a very high-pressure situation, but you expect people to have a lot of respect and race people like they always did. Whether that happens or not is just a situation of time will tell."
Six drivers have their spot in the Chase locked up, and Jeremy Mayfield only needs to finish 39th or better to make it. The rest of the spots in the 10-man Chase are up for grabs, and the drivers from eighth place all the way back to 16th can mathematically make it in.
Carl Edwards is in eighth place and followed by Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, who has just a one-point hold over Newman for the 10th and final position. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is in 12th. Elliott Sadler, Dale Jarrett, Kevin Harvick and Joe Nemechek are all mathematically eligible.
Emotions were all over the map during race preparations Friday, but the bulk of the contenders wanted only to worry about themselves. That's the strategy Mayfield took last year, when he broke a four-year winless streak by taking the checkered flag to secure his spot in the Chase.
But getting to the front could be a challenge.
"I don't think this is going to be a clean race at all," Sadler said. "I think there is going to be very aggressive driving because every point counts. I think you are not going to see much give and take between guys on the bubble.
"Guys are going to have to race their guts out to pass."
Gordon, who is in one of the most pressure-packed situations of his career, admitted he will be a demon on Saturday night when the situation calls for it. Of all the bubble drivers, Gordon has the most at stake because he's the most recognizable driver in NASCAR and many believe the playoff-style title hunt will be a dud if he's not involved.
"If somebody tells me, 'You have to pass that car right there,' I guarantee you I'm going to step up the aggressiveness to a whole other level and that may mean beating and banging," Gordon said. "But until it calls for that moment, I'm not expecting to go out there and just beat and bang for no reason."
So how does a driver stay out of a trouble with so much on the line? "You just have to be aware of who you are around. You know the guys who are going to take chances, so you stay away from them," McMurray said. "There a lot of people who maybe have one coming, and this could be the night [they get it.]"
NASCAR tends to keep a watchful eye on dirty driving and has a history of handing down swift punishments. Dale Jarrett was immediately penalized two laps after intentionally wrecked Newman two weeks ago.
That accident crippled Jarrett's bid to make the Chase and cost Newman several valuable points at the same time.
Newman was dealt another setback during Friday's practice session when he wrecked his primary car and had to go to his backup Dodge. Still, he said he hasn't spent too much time worrying about his fate.
Newman has an engineering degree from Purdue, and approaches everything in the most practical matter he can. So he won't lose any sleep wondering how the race will play out.
"I know there is pressure, but I don't feel it," he said. "I haven't had any migraines, it's been life as usual. I'm a numbers guy, but it's all about performance. When performance happens, the numbers fall in place the way you want them to."
McMurray learned the hard way that staying relaxed is the best approach.
He was a nervous wreck last year when he came into the race 11th in the standings. He ended up missing the Chase by just 15 points.
He's much more at ease this time, even though his grip on the final qualifying position is just one point.
"It's a lot better to be on the inside, it's something mentally that makes you feel a lot better," McMurray said. "So this is nothing like it was last year for me. I was tore up, I didn't want to eat.
"But this week is a lot better. I even played golf this week."
Gordon said he won't get stressed out until the race begins.
"To me, it's going to come down to driving our hearts out, doing everything we can and then trying to get ourselves in the best position," Gordon said.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press