This article appears in the October 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
With The Chase in full swing, you're thinking the 31 NASCAR teams outside the top 12 have nothing to race for but pride and trophies, right? Not quite. The final 10 events feature races packed within races -- with stakes ranging from cash to a get-out-of-jail-free card, good for next February. Below we look at some of the most heated fights to the finish.
THE BATTLE FOR 13TH
Kyle Busch looked equally relieved and disappointed after Richmond, where he missed nabbing a spot in the Chase. He's admittedly excited about being cut loose to spend his fall racing for wins instead of calculating points. And finishing 13th is arguably a better gig than finishing in the lower quadrant of the top 12. "You get to go to Champions Week, and this year it's in Vegas," says David Ragan, last year's 13th man. "Sprint guarantees the team will make a million bucks. And when you get a little taste of all the cool stuff the Chase guys get to do, it lights a fire under your butt to get ready for the next season."
TOP 25 DRIVER POINTS
Only drivers who finish 25th or better in the standings receive a share of Sprint's estimated $33 million point fund -- a nice bonus at the end of the season. Last year, the 25th-place team picked up a check for $240,000. The 26th-place finisher? Nada. "You would rather be battling for 10th," admits Martin Truex Jr., who started the Chase tied for 24th with AJ Allmendinger. "But it's getting pretty intense down here. If you laid a dollar on the finish line, we would race for it. It's also getting crowded." As of mid-September, a dozen drivers were within 200 points of Truex and Allmendinger.
TOP 35 OWNER POINTS
In the closing laps of the 2008 season finale at Homestead-Miami, Scott Speed made a furious dash to finish 16th. That boosted Red Bull Racing into 35th in the car-owner standings, which locked in a starting spot. "It was gigantic," says Red Bull Racing exec and former Cup racer Elton Sawyer. "Scott didn't have to worry about making the races. Compare that to the beginning of 2008 when the same car started 38th and wasn't protected. AJ Allmendinger didn't qualify for the first three races." For the past five seasons, NASCAR has guaranteed starting positions to the top 35 car owners, and the grid for the first five races of 2010 will be based on standings at the end of 2009. Now Red Bull is again in a battle for its survival, wrestling for the guaranteed spot with driver-owner Robby Gordon and with the shoestring budget operation of Front Row Motorsports.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Speed's other battle, for Rookie of the Year, ended long ago, thanks to a June win at New Hampshire by fellow frosh Joey Logano.
The Mag: Have you seen the list of guys who have won ROY?
JL: Yeah, Tony Stewart showed it to me last year. It's him, Gordon, Earnhardt, Richard Petty, pretty much every legend ever. Both of my teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, won it. There's a lot to live up to.
The Mag: Other than ROY, what are you goals for 2009?
JL: We want to win another race. Or two. Or three. We can't get to 13th, but we're 19th now and I'd love to sneak into the top 15. I just hope I can finish the year without making anyone mad.
The Mag: Especially the guys on that ROY list.
BEST IN (CAR) SHOW
Automakers haven't had much to smile about lately, but winning the Manufacturer's Championship will put some
pep in the step of auto execs when walking around Detroit
(or Tokyo) this winter. This year's race is a two-car breakaway: Toyota is trying to become the first foreign-based NASCAR champ, while Chevy (32 titles, 645 wins) hopes to extend its sizable lead in both categories. (Stats through Sept. 19.)
Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can find his online archives here.