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Woody: Interest Not Focused On The Leaders

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 19 2010

Mark Martin is not in the Chase yet, but he is lurking. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

The Chase for the Championship has turned NASCAR upside down.

Well, at least in terms of interest in the point standings.

With three races left to set the 12-man field, the attention is not focused on the leaders, but on 12th position.

Points leader Kevin Harvick, having secured his spot in the Chase with last Sunday’s win at Michigan, can coast through the next three races if he wishes. Frankly, so can just about every other driver in the top 10.

It’s the four or five positions on down the line that contain the drama.

Greg Biffle (11th), Clint Bowyer (12th), Mark Martin (13th) and Ryan Newman (14th) will be fighting for their playoff lives in the next three races.

Not even 10th-place Kurt Busch is totally secure, just as 15th-place Jamie McMurray is not totally out of contention.

For those drivers every position in every race from now on is critical, starting Saturday night at Bristol.

The epicenter of the drama is the 12th and final Chase spot. It changed hands at Michigan Sunday when Bowyer bumped out Martin.

It doesn’t get much more dramatic than this: can Martin, the popular old veteran, regain the position or will he be left out of the title hunt after finishing second last season?

Much of the drama (and fans’ hopes) involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. evaporated the previous week at Watkins Glen when he finished 26th and plunged two spots to 16th. His 19th-place finish at Michigan shoved him even further back, to 17th.

Only a miracle could get Junior in the Chase now – a sudden sizzling streak combined by a total flop by all five drivers ahead of him in the next three races. That’s highly unlikely. Miracles have been in increasingly short supply for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

But the good news for Earnhardt fans is that their driver will still be on the track during the final 10 races, trying to win. He won’t be in the playoffs but he won’t have to load up and go home.

And, as Harvick demonstrated last Sunday, just because a driver has his Chase ticket punched it doesn’t necessarily mean he will shift into cruise control. Harvick raced hard and picked up a victory, even though he was already a cinch for the Chase.

Each win is worth 10 bonus points come Chase time, and those 10 points can be critical if the 10-race tussle is as tight as some of us predict it’s going to be.

And if anyone thinks 2nd-place Jeff Gordon – also a Chase lock – is content to wobble into the Chase without a win, they haven’t been listening to Gordon’s comments in recent races. He is mired in the longest losing streak of his career, and it pricks his pride.

Momentum and confidence are important in racing just as in any sport, and no driver no driver wants to wobble into the playoffs with a struggling streak.

So there are oodles of incentive for everyone in these next three races, with the most intense pressure on positions10-15. Some are hanging on for dear life, others are desperately banging on the door. With three to go their season is on the line.

Gentlemen, start your drama.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 19 2010