Friday, September 9, 2005
Bubble drivers can't afford to hold back
By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com
RICHMOND, Va. -- Every weekend, NASCAR's finest talk about how much they want to win. Then, when do-or-die time arrives, they'll take four tires instead of two, or two instead of none, or whatever it takes to secure that top-five finish.
Winning is still a thrill in NASCAR, but consistency wins titles, and that's why the sport is undeniably full of points racers.
Except this weekend.
Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, a handful of drivers will be fighting for the final four playoff berths, hoping for a chance to be among the 10 invitees to NASCAR's 10-race shootout for the Nextel Cup.
One race. And the winner knows he's got a strong shot at making the cut.
The atmosphere is predictably intense, but the pressure isn't the only thing that this Chase format creates. There's also the unparalleled excitement from every one of the six drivers on the bubble knowing that now more than ever, they need a win -- and it's not just lip service.
"We're looking at this weekend as though we've got nothing to lose," said Elliott Sadler, who is trying to jump from 13th into the top 10. "There's only one thing we can do, and that's to go and try to win the race. We can't really worry about the points. We can't really worry about who we're racing and who we're not racing."
That means strapping on the blinders, ignoring all outside elements and taking every chance possible to try and steal a victory.
It's a familiar sentiment. In fact, the guys racing for those final four spots have taken to calling this all-or-nothing mantra by the name of the driver who proved it possible just last season.
"Hopefully, we can pull a Jeremy Mayfield on them," Chase contender Ryan Newman said. "Last year was a real nail-biter, and it looks like this year will be, too."
Last season, Mayfield was ranked 14th going into Richmond -- 55 points behind 10th place. Then he went out and secured a Chase berth by leading the most and winning the race.
This season, the picture looks like this:
The top six have clinched. Mayfield, much safer this year in seventh, needs only to finish 39th or better to clinch. Carl Edwards, in eighth, must finish 19th or better to automatically clinch.
That's where the competition begins:
Matt Kenseth holds onto ninth, just 11 points ahead of Newman (11th place). Jamie McMurray is 10th, just one point ahead of Newman. Four-time champ Jeff Gordon is looking to sneak in from 12th place, 30 points behind McMurray, and Sadler holds 13th place, 62 points behind McMurray. Dale Jarrett, Kevin Harvick and Joe Nemechek round out the mathematical contenders, though their shots are longer than the 600-miler in Charlotte.
"Everybody's so tight in there," McMurray said. "You can't worry about points while you're racing because you don't know what's going to happen. Now, it's about doing everything you absolutely can."
It's not as though this win-at-all-costs mentality is new to NASCAR. It's simply that years ago the series put a premium on points racing, making it more profitable to play it safe late in the race and secure a top-five than to get your Tin Cup on and go for glory.
It's still the case under the playoff format -- just take a look at winless Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. Each secured Chase berths last weekend, but neither has won a race. Instead, they've been steady, with about a dozen top-10 finishes and a half-dozen top-fives.
Although the Chase format has done little to change points racing throughout the season, it does give NASCAR Nation a treat Saturday night. Every fan knows that he or she will get one night in September when a handful of drivers can no longer take the slow-and-steady approach. For one race, the group clustered around 10th has to lay it all on the line, and the fans benefit.
"The difference is that [I used to] have 10 more races to work my way into the top 10," Gordon said.
Now the season, for all intents and purposes, ends 10 races sooner if a driver can't make the playoffs.
"In the past, the pressure right now would be lying on the those top five guys who are battling for the championship," said Gordon, who likened the intensity and pressure he feels going into this race to what he felt while contending for previous championships. "Right now, those guys are kind of on easy street."
For the three guys within reasonable reach of the top 10, it means going for broke Saturday night. But they're not the only ones feeling the heat.
"I feel like the pressure is not on us," Sadler said. "I think the guys that are only one or 10 points behind -- or 10 points ahead of [11th place] have more pressure than we have."
McMurray, just one point ahead of Newman and 30 points ahead of Gordon, said he feels the pressure. And while he may not be as inclined as Sadler to take chances to win, he understands that his playoff position is fragile and could use a victorious ride in Richmond.
"Tenth position is ours to lose," he said. "So we're going to give it everything we have and we're not going to count on anything until the checkered flag flies."
And what a treat it'll be to see whose rig it is that rides beneath when that checkered flag unfurls.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.