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Some on Chase bubble have bigger goal in mind

September 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Ten drivers for five Chase spots leads to Richmond free-for-all

RICHMOND, Va. -- At Richmond International Raceway, the intensity level runs high for those drivers battling for the final few spots still available to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But beneath all that pressure and anxiety, there’s an undercurrent of a very different emotion.

Belief.

Saturday night’s regular-season finale on the three-quarter-mile short track promises to be a free-for-all, with 10 drivers still technically eligible for the five playoff spots not yet claimed. Some of those contenders harbor more realistic hopes than others, but to many, expectations do not stop at simply wedging their way into the Chase field. Most of these bubble boys firmly believe they can win the entire thing.

Hope springs eternal, even for those drivers resigned to clawing their way in.

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“None of us would be here if we didn't think we could win every week,” said Martin Truex Jr. “I race to win; I don't race for top 10s. That's what we all do. That's what got us there. That's why we're here. All the teams that are challenging to get in the Chase right now have the potential if they get hot, get on a streak, get that momentum that we all the time talk about. Where does it come from? How do you get it? Nobody can explain it. A team can go on a roll, win a championship. It's 10 races. You got to be perfect. Somebody's going to do it.”

Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have clinched top-10 spots in the playoff, and Kasey Kahne has secured at least a Wild Card. That leaves five positions still up for grabs, and 10 drivers mathematically eligible: Truex, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

Those latter three, though, are statistical long shots, drivers who need to win the race and have bad things befall several other hopefuls to have any chance to get in. Conversely, Earnhardt needs only a 32nd-place finish to wrap up his place in the top 10. So barring events unlikely or unforeseen, the most realistic scenario involves six drivers -- Logano, Biffle, Busch, Gordon, Truex and Newman -- vying for four available spots.

Next weekend at Chicagoland, though, the emphasis changes from trying to get into the Chase to trying to win it. Toward that end, there’s no shortage of optimism even among drivers who risk being on the outside looking in at the conclusion of 400 miles on Saturday night.

“We can contend. I'm optimistic about it,” Busch said. “We posted great numbers all season. We have a test session left that will allow us to prepare at a track that might be a good track for us, to get even better, or use that test session on a track that I know I struggle on in those final 10 weeks. … I think we hit another boost of speed when we came back to all these tracks a second time. Since then, like at Pocono earlier this year we finished seventh, second race third. Michigan we wrecked in the first race, but we came back and finished third again. Those are the finishes that it's going to take to run well in the Chase. When you're talking about third, sixth, fourth like last week -- those are the numbers that stack up to give you a shot in the Chase.”

Recent performance backs up that assertion -- Busch has finished ninth or better in four of his last five races, and stands 10th in points, even without the benefit of a race win. Another driver on a similar streak is Logano, whose victory at Michigan has anchored a six-week run in which he hasn’t placed worse than eighth. No wonder Keselowski says his Penske Racing teammate would be his favorite to win the title -- should Logano get in.

“There's parts and pieces that you're developing that you try to time out for the Chase. Obviously we accelerated a lot of that stuff, because we're as a team not sitting as pretty as we wanted to be,” said Logano, who needs to finish 11th or better Saturday to clinch a spot. “… At the same time, you know, I feel we have some good stuff coming down the pipeline. Everyone is going to pick it up a notch when we get in the Chase. I feel like we picked it up a notch the last few weeks. We have to pick it up another notch to have a shot at it.”

He’s not alone there. Greg Biffle believes the struggle to get into the Chase has obscured what he might be capable of should he get in. “Because of the way we've run this season, (people) have quite possibly underestimated the possibility of us contending for the win,” said Biffle, who has a victory this season and can clinch a Chase spot with a finish of ninth or better.

“You would look at the bottom, maybe seventh- through 12th-place guys and say they probably don't have as good a chance as the first through (sixth),” he said. “That has some weight to it. Last year we came in leading the points here at Richmond. This year, we're ninth. But I almost feel like we're in better position this year car‑wise, competition‑wise, than we were last year. Well‑documented, we've struggled this season with this (Generation-6) car. As kind of a whole organization, we haven't been as strong as we had been last year. I think we're getting it figured out.”

Even the drivers on the absolute fringe think they’re capable of bigger things. “We've proven we can win. Everybody says you have to be a winner to be a champion. I don't know that's necessarily the case, but obviously it does help,” said Newman, 14th in points, who needs a win Saturday and some other things to happen. “I mean, I'm not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I think we can win it, I know we can win it.’ I think we can be a true contender and shake some things up.”

Gordon, in 11th place, is in a similar spot. But he remembers how he made the Chase last year, recording a miracle runner-up finish at Richmond to claim the final playoff spot by three points over Kyle Busch. The momentum generated that night propelled him into the next week, where he was running fourth before his car’s throttle stuck and he hit the wall.

“When we did it like we did it last year, whoa, that was awesome,” Gordon said. “It's all about your car at that track, at that moment. You could have the worst year you've ever had and hit it. We've seen that happen this year with different teams, where they just hit it. All of a sudden it's like, ‘Where did they come from? How did they win that race?’ It can happen to anybody, and it certainly can happen to us.”

It can happen to anybody. When it comes to the championship, that’s the hope these Chase bubble boys are clinging to -- even if there are no guarantees they’ll actually make the Chase.

“You have to get in there and do your best,” Earnhardt said. “I think we're all capable of doing a good job, and everybody's capable of winning the championship.”

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