LONG POND, Pa. — Kurt Busch should be the driver whom everyone outside the top 12 is pursuing for the final spot in the Chase.
Instead, the former Nextel Cup champion is the one lagging behind.
When Busch was docked 100 points for reckless driving in early June at Dover, the penalty dropped him six spots and out of a place for the 12-car, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Those points could deny him a chance to race for the title.
“Yeah, that’s what everybody will write about if we don’t make it,” Busch said. “There’s been times where we’ve let quite a few points get away from us. Hopefully the 100 from Dover won’t come into play.”
The Las Vegas native is one of a handful of drivers vying to claim one of the few slots up for grabs in a six-race stretch that starts in today’s 500-mile race at Pocono Raceway and ends at Richmond. The final six races of the 26-race regular season put the drivers, their fans and everyone in the sport on edge about how it will all end.
“It’s real nerve-racking,” said Clint Bowyer, who is in 10th. “It’s up to us to ensure that we’re in it.”
For drivers at the bottom of the top 12 such as Martin Truex Jr. (11th) or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), this stretch is like the college basketball conference tournaments: Win and you’re in. Lose and, well, you’ll need some help.
“I think everyone’s on the Chase bubble,” Truex said.
Had Busch not been docked those 100 points for reckless driving and endangering one of Tony Stewart’s crew members on pit road, he would have 2,304 points, enough to bump Earnhardt (2,217) outside the top 12.
Busch fell from 11th to 17th in the Chase standings after NASCAR penalized him, but he has worked his way back to 13th on the strength of five top-10 finishes in the seven races since Dover. Busch is followed by Ryan Newman (59 points out of the Chase), Jamie McMurray (113) and Greg Biffle (128), all legitimate contenders to catch Earnhardt, Truex and Bowyer.
Even Jimmie Johnson, once considered a lock for the Chase, has put himself in a vulnerable position by dropping from fourth to ninth in the past three races.
“There is a concern. We don’t want to be in this situation,” said Johnson, who swept Pocono in 2004.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the drivers in the hunt for those spots all had strong qualifying efforts for the Pennsylvania 500. Earnhardt took his first pole since 2002, and Busch will join him on the front row. Newman was fourth and Johnson seventh.
“I think most of the teams are hitting their peak and everyone’s running strong,” Busch said. “Whoever gets the most consistent finishes will be in the Chase.”
Truex and Earnhardt, DEI teammates, would have been fighting to make the Chase under the old rules. But the field was expanded this season from 10 to 12 drivers.
Earnhardt believes his final season with Dale Earnhardt Inc. will end with a spot in the Chase.
“I feel like we’re not a 12th-place team. We’re a fifth-place team, if not even more successful than that,” Junior said. “I still feel like we’ll make the Chase with ease because we’re such a good team. If we don’t make the Chase, I’ll be the most surprised person, not only in this room, but in this garage, because I feel totally confident that we’ve got control of it and can get it done.”
Earnhardt is totally confident during daylight hours, at least. He admits to some restless nights, sometimes calling crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to ask if the car will be fast enough each weekend. That’s the kind of pressure the Chase puts on drivers and their teams.
Even the drivers with a spot all but secured are constantly looking at the standings.
“We know exactly how far we’re behind and who we’re tied with and in front of,” said Denny Hamlin, in second. “We’re aware of it, but we’re not overly concerned with it. We can’t be going crazy over 10 points here and there because if it affects your performance and kills your momentum going into the Chase, it’s not going to matter anyway.”