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Time Running Short At Michigan For Drivers Seeking Chase Spot

With just four races left in NASCAR’s “Race to the Chase,” time is running out for four drivers with strong Brickyard connections.

South Bend, Ind., native Ryan Newman has one win this season, which could help him claim one of the two wild-card” positions in the Chase. He is 49 points out of 10th place in a Stewart-Haas Racing car owned by two-time Brickyard 400 winner and fellow Indiana native Tony Stewart.

Only the top 10 in points advance into the Chase after the Sept. 8 race at Richmond International Raceway. The final two positions go to the drivers with the most victories that are in positions 11-20 in points.

Four-time Cup champion and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon appeared to be in great shape to claim one of the two wild-card positions heading into last weekend’s race at Watkins Glen International but was involved in a final-lap crash when his No. 24 Chevrolet hit oil that had been sprayed on the race course by another car. His crash dropped him to a 21st-place finish, and he is fourth in the wild-card standings with one victory and 59 points out of 10th.

Paul Menard won the 2011 Brickyard 400 but is eighth in wild-card standings with no victories and 64 points out of 10th. Nothing short of a three-race winning streak could guarantee him a position in the 12-driver Chase. And 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray is 10th in wild-card standings with no wins and a whopping 152 points out of 10th place. He is another driver that needs a motorsports miracle to advance into the Chase lineup.

Former USAC star Kasey Kahne has one of the two wild-card positions with two victories. He is 11th in points. Newman is 13th in points, Gordon 15th, Menard 16th and McMurray 20th.

The pressure is on these Brickyard stars this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, site of the Pure Michigan 400 at the recently paved 2-mile oval. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to victory here in June.

“Oh, it’s going to be an interesting weekend with everything that happened the last time that we were here, with tires,” Gordon predicted during his Friday media availability at MIS. “This is one of my favorite tracks and always has been. It’s big and fast. The repave and then having a test here a couple of weeks ago and then the start of the day was very exciting and interesting with the lack of grip and then all the issues those guys had putting fluid down on the track, so it made for a very challenging day to start, that’s for sure. There toward the end, the track starting getting grip back and we started seeing the speeds get faster and faster. “

Gordon has two wins, 18th top-fives and 25 top-10 finishes in 39 starts. But his last MIS win was ancient history, all the way back in June 2001. He has finished sixth in his past two races at this track.

He qualified 11th Friday.

Gordon was visibly upset NASCAR did not throw the caution flag on the final lap at Watkins Glen even though race leader Kyle Busch and others already had spun with oil on the track.

“I can’t change the outcome,” Gordon admitted. “If I felt like there was a way to change the outcome and take back that last corner, I certainly would. I mean, I was as dejected at just the fact that it happened, as I was at that they kind of allowed the car out there without really throwing a caution. It cost, I think, Kyle (Busch) the win. It possibly cost the No. 2 (Keselowski) the win because I think he might have hit something going into that bus stop. It certainly cost us a lot of positions.

“But that’s racing. Yeah, I’m going to be mad about it at the time and not happy with some of the things. I felt like I could have been a little bit more conservative in that last corner and come home eighth or ninth; and that would have still been a pretty solid day for us. But I was racing hard and probably harder than I should have been, and I felt like we also probably could have given me a bit more information on that last lap about what was going on. But I talked to the team and they were like, ‘Hey, we didn’t want to break your rhythm. You were racing hard for position. You were moving forward, and we didn’t want to say anything. So you can’t blame them for that. It was a great finish. Gosh! I went home and watched it and I thought, ‘Wow, that was exciting; that was cool.’ So, you hope the sport can gain from that.”

Newman is another two-time Michigan winner with wins in this race in 2003 and in the June race in 2004. Those two wins are included in his five top-five and six top-10 finishes in 22 starts. He was fifth in this contest last year and 15th back in June as he battles to make the Chase.

“I think making the Chase is big for me personally, for our team and for our organization,” Newman said. “We’ve made it, and we’ve not made it. When we don’t make it, it’s frustrating to go through those last 10 races. In the past it hasn’t changed our perspective on the next season, but this year I think it’s a little bit different. So, yes, it has weight but it doesn’t change the way I race, and it doesn’t change my mentality when I get in the race car or when I get out of the race car. It’s all about my job as a driver. I’ve done it for the last 10 years in this sport, and every day is the same when it comes to that.”

Newman lines his No. 39 Chevrolet 15th on the grid Sunday.

Menard has never won at Michigan and has just one top-five and one top-10 finish in 12 starts. He was 26th last August and 22nd in June. He will start 10th on Sunday.

“We ran out of fuel on the last lap, and that cost us seven positions,” Menard said. “We ran between 10th and 15th all day. We felt really good about the car after testing and practice, and then Goodyear changed the left-side tires. We had a hard time figuring out the balance of the car with the new tires, so that put us behind for the race. We did not have a good practice on those left-side tires. When the race started we made some good adjustments and the car was competitive. I felt like at the worst we were going to finish 14th, but I think we could have gotten a top-10 finish.”

Although he is nearly out of any serious consideration for a wild-card position, McMurray looks forward to the race Sunday at Michigan where he has no wins, one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He was 23rd last August and 14th in June.

“I am looking forward to going back to Michigan,” Menard said. “It was incredible how smooth and fast the track was for the first race on the new surface in June. We had a decent car there and had a top-15 finish, but we know that we can be better. We tested in Nashville this week to try a few things take back to Michigan.”

McMurray qualified 24th Friday.

While there four drivers are scrambling just to get into the Chase, the rest of the “Brickyard’s Best” are in much better shape. Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson leads the Cup standings for the first time this season and is up by one point over Greg Biffle and two over Matt Kenseth. Johnson qualified third Friday. Stewart is eighth in points and 63 ahead of 11th place. He qualified the same as his car number – 14.

Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard winner, is ninth in points and 57 points ahead of 11th.

As the “Race to the Chase” kicks into high gear, expect a driver with strong connections to the Brickyard to play a major role in the outcome.

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