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Tenuous grip on Chase chafes at contenders

Two-time champ Tony Stewart has been either ninth or 10th in points each of the past six weeks as he clings to a Chase spot.

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Two-time champ Tony Stewart has been either ninth or 10th in points each of the past six weeks as he clings to a Chase spot.

RICHMOND, Va. — When Michael McDowell pulled in front of Tony Stewart during practice Friday at Richmond International Raceway, it ruined Stewart's mock qualifying run.

Maybe his mood, too.

The two-time NASCAR champion, who later qualified 22nd for tonight's Sprint Cup race, had words with McDowell before heading to his team debrief. In between was a media session, and the temperamental Stewart was a little testy about his prospects for making the Chase for the Championship.

"The pressure is all the media standing here; we're doing the same thing we always do every week," Stewart snapped.

For a guy trying to downplay being under pressure, Stewart sure seemed stressed.

But that's expected heading into tonight's race, the final chance for drivers to lock down the last three remaining spots in the 12-driver field. Under a new wild-card format, NASCAR's final two Chase berths go to drivers outside the top 10 who have the most wins.

Stewart is 10th in points, and should he finish 18th or higher tonight, he'll be just fine.

But Brad Keselowski is closing quickly, and should Stewart fall outside the top 10, he might miss the Chase for the second time since its inception in 2004. The only other time Stewart failed to qualify for the Chase was 2006.

Stewart wasn't the only one on edge.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth in points and needs to only finish 20th tonight to clinch a Chase spot. But he has not run well for almost three months and has not made the Chase since 2008.

"Whatever happens is going to happen. That is just what you are going to have to live with at the end of the night," said Earnhardt, who qualified 27th. " … My main concern is for us to be more competitive as a team. It is really frustrating to make the Chase and then not be as competitive as you want to be during those races."

Across the garage, the one driver really under the gun seemed rather relaxed.

Denny Hamlin is 12th in points and holds the second wild-card slot (Keselowski owns the first with three wins and has clinched no worse than a wild card). Hamlin has one victory this season — but he is the two-time defending race winner and Richmond is his favorite track.

"Winning is everything, and we come here with the mind-set that we need to win, so we want to do that," Hamlin said. "These last two years we won this race going into the Chase, it really gave us a lot of good momentum … and it seemed like we had two good Chases in a row because of that."

Hamlin most likely would only lose his spot if Keselowski remains 11th in points and if a lurker (AJ Allmendinger? Greg Biffle? Clint Bowyer?) wins tonight and passes Hamlin in points. The only other realistic spoilers are Paul Menard (20th in points) and Marcos Ambrose (21st), who each own a win and could sneak in as a wild card with an upset tonight.

"I think it's probably easier on us than it is for the guys that have certain scenarios that have to happen for them to make it," Hamlin said. "Really, I'm racing this race as if it's just a normal season race like I have the last few years — no different."

REUTIMANN ON POLE: David Reutimann of Zephyrhills qualified first for tonight's race with a lap 127.383 mph around the 0.75-mile oval. Jamie McMurray (127.334) lines up second.

Kyle Busch wins again

Kyle Busch took the lead from Carl Edwards during pit stops with just more than 30 laps to go Friday night at Richmond to win his eighth Nationwide series race this season.

Busch's victory in the College Savings 250 was his 51st in the series, extending his record.

Ricky Stenhouse finished third and padded his points lead over Elliott Sadler to 16 with seven races remaining.

Danica Patrick, making her eighth start of the season, was 18th and clipped pole-sitter Brad Keselowski, sending him into the wall.

Tampa's Aric Almirola finished seventh.

Sprint Cup points

Through 25 of 36 races. The top 10 drivers plus two wild cards (based on wins) after tonight's race make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Jimmie Johnson-x 873—

Kyle Busch-x 852 21

Carl Edwards-x 835 38

Matt Kenseth-x 834 39

Jeff Gordon-x 830 43

Kevin Harvick-x 819 54

Kurt Busch-x 789 84

Ryan Newman-x 786 87

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 753 120

Tony Stewart 751 122

Brad Keselowski*-x 728 145

Denny Hamlin* 709 164

AJ Allmendinger 698 175

Clint Bowyer 697 176

Greg Biffle 681 192

* Wild cards if Chase field were set today; Keselowski has clinched at least a wild card; Hamlin is the highest-ranked driver in spots 11-20 with one win.

x—Clinched a Chase spot.

Tonight's race

Wonderful Pistachios 400, 7:30 p.m., Richmond (Va.) International Raceway

TV: Ch. 28

Tenuous grip on Chase chafes at contenders 09/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 10:38pm]
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