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Woody: Chase Pressure Causing Boil-Overs?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 8 2010

Joey Logano was spun and enraged during Sunday's Race at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

After last Sunday’s race at Pocono, Joey Logano had to be restrained from going after Kevin Harvick.

The week before at Charlotte Jeff Burton got in the face of Kyle Busch and gave him a blistering, finger-shaking dress-down.

Summer’s at hand temperatures are rising.

You wonder if the recent boil-overs by two of NASCAR’s most mild-mannered drivers is just coincidence or an indication of building pressure.

There’s no question that the championship Chase has not only ratcheted excitement among fans, it has lit a fire under competitors. The Chase has become to NASCAR what the playoffs are to the NFL: the standard by which all teams are judged.

In the NFL if a team doesn’t make the playoffs, its season is considered a bust. Ditto for NASCAR and the Chase. When teams roll out at Daytona to start the season, making the 12-car championship field is every driver’s top priority.

Winning the Chase is gravy; everybody understands that only one driver can do it. But at least making the Chase is essential; no respectable team wants to be left out of the Top 12.

And speaking of 12, that’s how many races remain to set the Chase field going into Sunday’s stop at Michigan.

Under the Chase format NASCAR has a 26-race “regular season” in which drivers can battle their way into the top 12. There’s pressure to get in and, once there, more pressure to stay in.

Right now there are some great drivers hovering on the outside, most notably two-time champ Tony Stewart. Stewart is 13th and teammate Ryan Newman 14th. If the Chase started tomorrow both would be spectators in the title fight. The same goes for such notables as Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Jamie McMurray, Juan Paul Montoya and Kasey Kahne.

Unlike the recent All-Star race, popularity means nothing. Fans can’t vote a driver in. They have to race their way in, and the clock is ticking.

The top five or six drivers in the standing are relatively secure. They’re probably not going to get bumped out of the Top 12 in the next dozen races.

But the bottom six or so aren’t safe. Witness Jeff Gordon, who last Sunday took a three-spot hit, dropping down to 7th. A couple more finishes like that and he’s in trouble.

Jeff Burton is on even thinner ice in 8th place, followed by Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer.

They’ll be fighting for their playoff lives in every race, challenged by outsiders like Stewart, Newman, Earnhardt and Logano, desperate to nudge them out and claim their spot.

One wipeout could mean the difference in a driver making the Chase and in being one of the 13-and-below also-rans left out in the cold.

The Chase has created tremendous drama and excitement, and not just in the final 10-race showdown. It’s started already, and the pressure is building.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday. com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 8 2010
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