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Friday, September 11, 2009
Now or never for Chase contenders

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- No more of that "one race at a time" baloney.

No more "We can't worry about what other teams are doing" tripe.

This is the one race. And you'd better worry what those other drivers are doing Saturday night.

The Chevy Rock & Roll 400 is the only race of the year at which everything is on the line for several drivers. The 10-race Chase playoff field is set after this race for 12 fortunate drivers.

Eight of the top 12 still don't know their fate. One of them is Mark Martin. He's 10th in the standings, 69 points inside the cutoff.

"This has been a long week for me," Martin said. "I wish we had secured our [playoff] position weeks ago. It's going to be a long night, for sure. There are a lot of good cars battling for those last few spots, and we're one of them.

"It's a tough situation, but this is a strong team. I think we're worthy of being in the Chase. And barring any unforeseen circumstances, I think we will be. We should be there. But that's not always how it works."

As a four-time runner-up to the title, Martin knows that better than most. For now, he just wants a shot at the championship this year. And that opportunity comes down to one race.

This is the biggest event of the Chase format, more so than any of the 10 events inside the playoff.

The Daytona 500, which starts the season, is the race every driver wants to win. Some people refer to it as NASCAR's Super Bowl.

But this race on the Richmond short track is the one event at which championship hopes can live or die in an instant. The Chase was started with the hope of adding drama to the final event of the Sprint Cup season, causing the championship to come down to the final laps between two or three drivers.

That hasn't happened most of the time. The championship leader usually reaches the last race at Homestead, Fla., with a big enough points cushion to take away any real battle for the title at the end.

But the race to make the Chase, NASCAR's version of the Last Chance Saloon, is the event when some drivers have to sweat it out for 400 laps before learning whether they make the playoff.

"This is one of the biggest races of the year," said Tony Stewart, who leads the standings and has clinched a Chase spot. "The fact that so many guys are fighting for a spot makes this so exciting to watch. And you have a lot of great drivers and great teams battling for those spots."

It's the same as an NFL team coming down to the last game of the regular season with a playoff spot on the line.

Officially, 11 drivers are vying for eight available spots in the Chase field. But three bubble drivers -- Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch -- are feeling the most pressure.

Kenseth enters the race in the final playoff spot, 20 points ahead of Vickers and 37 points ahead of Busch.

"We are going to do whatever we can to get in the Chase," Kenseth said. "It all comes down to this race, but we had 25 other races that got us in the position we are now."

No one can change those previous 25 outings. The one everyone remembers is the race that sets the playoff.

The stress is enormous. Every lap is a chance for disaster.

We are going to do whatever we can to get in the Chase. It all comes down to this race, but we had 25 other races that got us in the position we are now.

-- Matt Kenseth

The mind considers the worst: "What if I blow an engine? What if a part malfunctions and ends my night? What if someone wrecks in front of me and takes me out?"

So, do you play it safe?

"I don't think we can," said Greg Biffle, 11th in the standings and 68 points ahead of 13th-place Vickers. "We're going to fight tooth and nail."

But each bubble team has to consider what the other bubble teams are doing during the race. Are you far enough ahead of the guys you need to beat? Are you behind them?

It becomes a mathematical hodgepodge that constantly changes.

"As a team, we'll be well aware of where everybody is," Vickers said. "Our guys have a points monitor lap by lap.

"For me, personally, I won't do much on it. Sure, if I'm around Kyle or Matt, I'll be aware of it. But I won't be on the radio asking, 'Where's Matt?' If a bubble guy has a problem, I'm sure the team will let me know because it would change our strategy. We just have to play it by ear."

If the guys you're chasing wreck, you drive defensively the rest of the race. If they are ahead of you on the track, you race aggressively and go for broke.

"We feel good about where we are,'' said Juan Pablo Montoya, who ranks eighth, 88 points inside the Chase cutoff spot. "But things can still go terribly wrong and you can miss it. We realize that."

And while all this is going on with the Chase spots, a few drivers are going all out to win, trying to earn those 10 bonus points to start the playoff. Each regular-season victory is worth 10 extra points to start the Chase.

"The focus won't be on the lead for the race," Stewart said. "But I'll be going for those 10 bonus points. I really need them."

A victory Saturday would give Stewart four wins, enabling him to start the Chase tied for the top spot with Martin and Kyle Busch, if Martin and Busch make it.

It's possible the two drivers with the most victories will fail to make the Chase.

"Unfortunately, we're in this predicament," said Busch, who won at Richmond in May. "It's going to be tough."

A few drivers will become heroes Saturday night and breathe a big sigh of relief. A few will hang their heads and wonder what might have been.

Without the Chase format, Richmond in September is just another race. With the Chase, it's the best race to watch all season.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.