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That freedom is the luxury of being a front-runner.
• The Middle Men
The drivers in this group need to be especially cautious because one or two finishes of 30th or worse could cause them to tumble out of the top 12. If Kurt Busch (currently fourth in points), Carl Edwards (fifth), Denny Hamlin (sixth), Ryan Newman (seventh), Kyle Busch (eighth) and Biffle (ninth) can simply finish in the top 15 in each of the remaining nine regular-season races, they'll glide into the postseason.
"I can't afford to not finish a race [or] come in 30th," says Kyle Busch. "That would kill me in the standings. I can't take chances like the guys in front of me can."
Busch, the most aggressive driver on the circuit, has a disgusted expression as he says this, as if he just swallowed a bug. Driving conservatively runs counter to his racing nature. But he has struggled over the last two months with the handling of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, battling to get it to turn through the corners to his liking. Until that can be corrected, he'll be forced to sacrifice speed for security—a bargain that all of the Middle Men would be wise to make.
• The Bubble Boys
These are the drivers who will be gripping the wheel the tightest the rest of the way: Matt Kenseth (10th in points), Mark Martin (11th), Montoya (12th), Kahne (13th) and David Reutimann (14th). This group, separated by just 17 points, will be forced to take chances, to try exotic setups, to make that attempt at a three-wide pass late in a race because they can no longer afford to be conservative and settle for that top-15 finish.
"I want to be around this series for years to come," says Reutimann, who, though he's 39, is in only his second full-time Cup season. "The only way for me to make sure that happens is to make the Chase. We can't panic, but if we're not in the top 12 the closer we get to the Chase, we'll be forced to get more aggressive."
Reutimann may have an ace in the hole in his Chase quest, though. As the only Toyota driver on the bubble, he'll have the substantial resources of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) supporting him. Though TRD has trimmed its budget by about 20% this season in response to the global recession, it hasn't cut its spending in the Cup series as dramatically as Chevy, Dodge and Ford have. So if Reutimann stays close to the 12th spot, he'll receive an abundance of assistance from the 45 engineers at TRD as he tries to become the first driver from Michael Waltrip Racing to qualify for the postseason. "It's very, very important to us to get David into the Chase," says Lee White, the president of TRD. "We'll do everything we can to make that happen."
Kahne, who drives for Dodge-backed Petty Motorsports and is clearly benefiting from the new and more powerful R6 Dodge engine, will also challenge for the final playoff spot. So too will Montoya, who pilots the number 42 Chevy for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. A native of Colombia and a former Formula One driver, Montoya struggled with the heavier—by some 2,000 pounds—stock cars during his first two NASCAR seasons. But in 2009 he has begun to acquire what they call in the garage "the feel": a driver's ability to make the car behave as if it's an extension of his body. In his last seven starts he has five top 10s, two more than he had in all of '08, and he now has a chance to become the first non-U.S.-born driver to qualify for the Chase. Look for the notoriously aggressive Montoya to make a charge at two of his best tracks: at Indy (July 26), where he took second in '07; and on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. (Aug. 9), where he finished fourth last year.