Chasers want to survive first, win second
With three races remaining before NASCAR crowns its Nextel Cup champion, anybody who wasn't points racing before is doing so now. The drivers in the top seven, separated by just 155 points, likely also are paying close attention to black cats, ladders and rabbit's feet.
"It's more about making sure you don't have bad luck at this point," said Tony Stewart, who leads the Chase field by 43 points heading into this weekend's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Bonuses for leading laps pay out as much as 10 points, and every position by which a Chase driver bests another Chase driver is good enough for another three or five points. With a championship bout as close as this one, every one of those points is coveted.
"You want to win," said Jimmie Johnson, who trails only Stewart, "but you need to pick up as many points as you can."
Texas can prove to be a difficult track at which to make that happen. The track is ever-changing, so it's tough for teams to anticipate whether their setups are on the money.
It's going to make for some last-minute scrambling, but almost every team believes it has a fighting chance for a top-10 finish.
You just need to dodge the trouble.
"It seems like [points will be] the biggest controlling factor in the championship," Stewart said. "There's a reason all 10 of us got in the position we're in. It seems like the biggest changing factor each week is looking at who has bad luck."
Despite Stewart's less-than-stellar history at Texas, it's hard not to dub him and his No. 20 team the favorites because they've been rock solid through seven Chase races.
Even when the team experienced tire problems at Lowe's Motor Speedway and finished outside the top 10 (one of only two times the team has done so in the Chase), Stewart raved about how well-suited his car was for the track.
That's going to be a big factor this weekend.
"[Texas is] one of the places where we have to try and pick up our performance," he said. "For me, it comes down to just feel more than anything. A driver has to like the feel of his race car and the feel of the track. If one of those things doesn't mesh right, then you're probably not going to be as successful as you want to be."
Stewart has reason to believe, though, that things will mesh for him in the Lone Star State.
"I'm actually looking forward to [Texas]," he said. "I think our cars have been good on those types of tracks, and I think we'll be good there next week."
Riding the wave
Even after Carl Edwards finished 26th two weeks ago at Martinsville, Va., he managed to climb one spot in the rankings thanks to the misfortunes of other Chase drivers.
After winning last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards sits fourth in the standings -- just 107 points out of first.
Edwards has raced at Texas only once before -- earlier this season -- and he finished 19th. He said he's looking forward to giving it another shot, though, especially after his recent fortunes.
"I'm looking forward to it, for sure," Edwards said. "We're feeling very confident and carrying a ton of momentum. There's still an opportunity for this Office Depot team to win a championship."
History on his side
Johnson has finished in the top 10 at Texas in each of the four races he has run there. Though he has yet to sneak into Victory Lane, he finished third at this track his last time out, and that has him feeling optimistic despite his 16th-place effort last weekend at Atlanta.
"It's just confidence," he said. "It helps build confidence and helps us believe in ourselves and in our team and to stay focused on what the job is that we have to do."
Cause for concern
Ryan Newman has finished 23rd in two of his last four races and dropped from second in the points race to fifth. Now 107 points out first, he still has a great shot at winning a title -- but only if the No. 12 team can figure out how to remedy what has dropped it from within four points of the leader to its current perch.
On top of that predicament, Newman has had trouble finding his form at Texas ever since winning there in 2003. That victory represents his lone top-10 finish at the track in six tries.
"We won there in 2003, but haven't really been able to gain any momentum at the track off of that win," he said. "We finally figured out qualifying there in the spring. Hopefully, this weekend we'll unload fast and win another pole. That gives us a better chance of earning the five bonus points for leading a lap. The important thing, though, is to make sure the car is fast not only for one lap but for 334 of them."
Of course, you can't forget that Greg Biffle won at Texas earlier this year. And he quietly has positioned himself for a title run, sitting just 75 points out with three to go.
Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the team's going with a reliable car this weekend -- one it hopes will deliver one more strong finish.
"We're taking the same car that we won with at Texas earlier this year," crew chief Doug Richert said. "It's had some body updates, but it is also the same car we finished seventh with at Atlanta last weekend. We have decided to take it to Texas this time because it has been a good car for us this year and if we start with the race setup we ran there earlier this year and make any necessary changes to correlate with any track surface changes, we should be OK."
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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