News & Media

Chase deadline weighs on wild card hopefuls

September 02, 2012, Mark Aumann,

HAMPTON, Ga. -- It's perhaps the one thing that keeps five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson up nights.

"I wake up every day with the fear ... I might not make the Chase," Johnson said. "Fortunately that hasn't happened, but I use it as motivation."

"[I] realized, 'Man, there's only nine or 10 days until Richmond.' ... And we're either going to be in or out. That made my heart rate go up just a little bit, to realize we've got to make this happen."


If Johnson -- who has never even come close to being on the Chase bubble -- struggles with the very idea of missing out on NASCAR's championship battle, just imagine how Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon are holding up under the pressure.

Despite eight months of hard work and long hours, it's conceivable that one, two or all three veteran drivers could miss NASCAR's 10-race postseason. And the days -- and the opportunities -- are dwindling quickly.

There's Atlanta today, then Richmond next Saturday. The field of 12 will then be set. And someone will see his Chase bubble pop.

"I was going through the calendar [earlier this week] and realized, 'Man, there's only nine or 10 days until Richmond,' Edwards said Friday. "And we're going to be done. And we're either going to be in or out. That made my heart rate go up just a little bit, to realize we've got to make this happen."

For now, all three seem fine on the outside. But it's difficult to ascertain how their guts are churning on the inside. The only clues are how each driver is handling the pressure of taking about how they found themselves in this precarious situation after 24 races.

If there's one commonality, it's in the eyes. They may still be saying the right things and thinking positive thoughts, but the eyes of those on the Chase bubble reveal little hints of disbelief -- that the unthinkable could become reality in the span of one short week.

"It's definitely stressful," Busch said. "You don't work as hard as you do all year long to suffer along through a season and miss the Chase. We miss the Chase and we're just going to be another race car out there on the race track, running around in circles for the rest of the year."

If there's another commonality, it's the luck, or lack thereof, that each shares. From the moment Gordon blew an engine at Daytona, it seems like he's been snake-bitten nearly every weekend.

Performance hasn't been the problem. Results have.

"That's been the most frustrating thing about this season is that we are ... a team that's capable of being in the top 10, winning more races than we have, more top fives than we have, less DNFs," Gordon said. "That's been the frustrating part, not getting the results you're capable of.

"That's been one thing I feel like has gone in my favor throughout my career, is when we're capable of the results, maybe we don't get them immediately, but eventually we start to build that momentum and get those results put together. This year has been one of those up-and-down years when it comes to that."

Busch can commiserate. This season can be summed up by a trail of broken parts, bad pit stops, bouncing off the concrete walls and sheer dumb misfortune. He's become the poster boy for Murphy's Law.

But despite all that, he still has confidence that he can put together two good races.

"It's just been a frustrating season, a tough one that's tried to bring us down and there really hasn't been too much to be excited about this year," Busch said. "Hopefully, we can make the Chase and try to turn our focus a little bit toward putting smiles on."

Edwards tied for the 2011 championship and lost the title because Tony Stewart had more victories. One year later, he's in danger of missing the Chase because the No. 99 Ford hasn't found its way to Victory Lane.

For Edwards, his current situation has been a devastating combination of misfortune and mediocrity.

"I haven't been paying attention to the numbers," Edwards said. "I've been subscribing to the idea that I should just go out and win and get in on a win.

"I have been doing this long enough that I feel like I'll have a little bit better perspective that I can accept whatever happens. But I'm still pretty confident that we'll make it. I haven't started to think about how I'd feel if we don't. I hope I can deal with it in a good manner if I have to, but we feel like we can win this week and win next week."

Because of the wild-card rules, winning solves everything. But if it were that easy, Busch -- as well as Edwards and Gordon -- wouldn't currently be in this situation

"That's all it boils down to," Busch said. "I'm not going to make the Chase by suffering through a bad day and finishing 20th. We know that. ... Obviously the win would be nice and that would lock [ourselves] in a heck of a lot easier, either way.

"If we run top-fives both these weeks and don't score a win, I feel like we still have a really good shot at getting in, or if we run 20th this week then going into Richmond, it may take a win to make it in."

Everyday stress is part and parcel with being a race-car driver. But add the pressure of trying to make the Chase, and Gordon admits the feeling is "certainly intense."

"I really think this thing is going to come down to the last lap of Richmond," Gordon said. "I've been saying it for weeks. I still believe that. No matter what happens this weekend, I really believe so many things can change in an instant and that it truly can come down to that final lap at Richmond."

Just the thing to keep him up nights.