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Playoffs payoff for NASCAR

Aug 31, 2004 2:56 AM

With the pro football regular season fast approaching, newspapers and media outlets are bulking up their staff and changing their coverage format. However, it’s not due to the NFL, but NASCAR. The "Chase for the Championship" is bigger than anticipated.

There are very few regular auto racing beat writers across the country that cover the sport exclusively, and only a handful are on site for most of the races each week. When football rolls around, many writers are forced to cover their area’s college and pro teams. Many sports editors have begun to see the sensation created by the new points system and a renewed interest by the fans, which normally isn’t there this time of year.

Only two races remain before the playoff field is set. There are currently seven positions open following last week’s Bristol race with 13 drivers mathematically eligible. Jeff Gordon (5-6), Jimmie Johnson (8-5), and Dale Earnhardt Jr (5-1) are the only drivers that have clinched. In all likelihood, the next four drivers in points will make the playoffs.

What this means is Sunday night’s race at California Speedway will likely see two types of driving. One side will play it safe, attempting to maintain a good finish and taking little risk. The flip side has the drivers furthest back of the eligible contenders going all in with their chips trying to lead laps and win the race.

Casey Mears (45-1) is the last eligible driver, but realistically doesn’t have a chance. That leaves eight drivers within 50 points of each other and only three positions available.

Here’s my view of those eight, for whatever that’s worth.

Kevin Harvick (22-1): Sitting a not so comfortable eighth in points. Harvick blew a great opportunity last week on a track he always performs well. Finished ninth at California in May and would probably take that finish this week. Chances are he’ll play it conservative, hoping for others behind him to eliminate themselves. No playoffs.

Bobby Labonte (18-1): Ran a great race there this year by gambling a bit with fuel. Ran out of gas, but still finished fifth. The "King of Conservative" won a driving championship with that strategy. Has four top 5 finishes in his last six starts at California Speedway. Also knows that a top 15 performance is good because next week he’s going to Richmond, a favorite track of his. Playoffs.

Ryan Newman (10-1): The definite wild card of the bunch. Traditionally, California’s wide open track suits him, but something isn’t right with Penske’s feature team the last two months. Newman won on California’s sister track at Michigan in June, giving him two straight victories there. The team has slumped, but is a bit better thanks to a great second place run at Bristol. Playoffs.

Kasey Kahne (10-1): Only four drivers in the series have more top 5’s than Kahne and they are the leaders. Sits 11th in the standings, 26 points behind Newman. Finished second and fifth in two Michigan races and settled for 13th in first shot at Cal despite sitting on the pole. Chances are we’ll see an aggressive Kahne knowing it will be much tougher at volatile Richmond next week where he finished 28th. No playoffs, barely.

Mark Martin (10-1): He, not Greg Biffle, probably should have won Michigan three weeks ago. Still, Martin is right in the thick of it and comes to a place he’s won before. Over the last two months, he has consistently been one of the fastest cars on long runs. That’s what California is about. Look for Martin to possibly win this week. Playoffs.

Jeremy Mayfield (16-1): Tied with Martin in points and also comes to a track where he’s won. The Evernham power will be there for him. Like Kahne, Mayfield will need something strong this week. Even though he had his best career run at Richmond last year, it’s been tough over his career. No playoffs.

Dale Jarrett (17-1): Third three weeks ago at Michigan. Jarrett’s car has been terrific ever since the first Pocono race. Everything before was garbage and non-competitive. Looking more like the championship team of the past. DJ has always been good at Richmond so he has somewhat of a crutch to lean on. Can be conservative like at Bristol, where he was happy with 10th place. No playoffs.

Jamie McMurray (16-1): Tied with Jarrett and also had a great run at Michigan with a fourth place finish. Was seventh last week and now has a much brighter picture than most on his team thought possible a month ago. No playoffs.

While Martin and Kahne will be charging hard for a win this week, we still can’t forget about the favorites.

Jeff Gordon (6-1): In eight California Speedway starts, Gordon has three wins and no finishes worse than 16th. It’s hard to bet against Gordon considering it’s all gravy for him for the next two races. He’s in the playoffs and the best the track has ever seen. Sounds like a no-brainer at 6-1, considering he wins every 2.6 times on the track.

Jimmy Johnson (7-1): Won as a rookie and finished second to Gordon this year. He bounced back last week with a surprisingly great run at Bristol after three horrific weeks that saw him get punted from the top in points.

Kurt Busch (7-1): Had his worst California run of his short four-race career on the track with a 23rd earlier this season. Busch was second to Johnson three years ago and then won last year. Busch is sitting firm in the points and should go all out this week.