Non-Chasers make presence felt at Martinsville
The Chase for the Nextel Cup is more than just an opportunity for 10 drivers to compete for a title. It's also an opportunity for the guys who got shut out to prove that they're getting their acts together and that there's a reason to believe in 2006.
"We're building toward next year," Elliott Sadler said, "and so every race is important."
For several non-Chase contenders, Sunday's run at Martinsville Speedway was a boost of encouragement.
Four-time champ Jeff Gordon, in the midst of his most disappointing campaign, won once again at Martinsville -- his first victory with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Trailing him were Bobby Labonte in fourth, Jeff Burton in fifth, Jamie McMurray in seventh, Kyle Busch in ninth and Ricky Rudd in 11th. It's been a long time since so many non-Chase racers cracked the top 10.
"I feel like the only way you should be in the Chase is if you've earned it," Gordon said after the race, reflecting on a season in which he's posted an astounding nine DNFs. "Bottom line [is that] we didn't earn it this year. Whether it be that we had back luck or whether it be that we didn't run well enough or I didn't drive good enough -- whatever it is, it just wasn't meant to be.
"The way the Chase is structured, it gives you hope all the way until the last race. Of course, for us all the way up until [the Chase cutoff race in] Richmond [Va.] -- it gave us hope that we could still make it into that Chase. I felt like we never really performed in a way that we're capable of. I'm more disappointed about how we've run that I am about not making the Chase.
After missing the cut, Gordon continued to struggle to put together top-five runs. That's why Sunday's score was such a big deal to him.
"In some ways it was a relief not to make the Chase, because we just needed some things to work on and I'm so proud and happy that we've been able to put Steve in place, get him this experience, now a win," he said. "That's going to do a lot for him and his confidence, confidence with the team, and it's going to give us something to build on for next year.
"I love being competitive and I love being up front and we can still go out and try to win races and not being in the Chase is a little bit disappointing, but I'm really thinking more about next year. Right now it's kind of refreshing for us just to sit back and work for next year. It doesn't matter where the points fall for us."
For other racers, like McMurray, Sunday's top-10 wasn't all about smiles. McMurray and Co. have felt like they hit on some things to make them better when the Chase first began, this after narrowly missing the cut in the first place.
So Sunday's seventh-place finish was OK. But the team didn't mask its disappointment in not competing for the win.
"We hit all around it today," crew chief Donnie Wingo said. "We just never got it exactly right. We had a real good car, but we just couldn't go at the end. I don't know why. We're running for 11th place, but I'd really win a race right now. We've only got four more chances, but I think we can win one of them. I thought we had a good shot here, but things didn't work out exactly like they should have for us to win it today."
The remainder of the season offers vets like Labonte and Burton a chance to mesh their engrained styles with their teams, and budding stars like Busch a chance to gain valuable experience. But not all is meant for fruit reaped next year. Many have worked their respective ships into shape and are hoping to close out the year with a win.
"Every weekend is an opportunity," said Rudd, who looked like a contender for the win early on Sunday. "Just because you're not in the Chase doesn't mean your season's over. Everyone who shows up to race has something driving them."
On Sunday, it drove the non-Chasers hard -- and it drove the Chasers out of what seemed to be a perpetual perch among the top 10 of the finishing order.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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