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• The Long Shots
A better name might be the Wait Till Next Year Gang. Since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, no driver who was outside the top 14 in points after the 17th race of the season—where things now stand—has made the field. This means drivers such as Clint Bowyer (currently 15th), Jeff Burton (16th), Brian Vickers (17th), Marcos Ambrose (18th) and Earnhardt (19th) will have to buck history to have a shot.
"This season has pretty much been a f------ nightmare," Earnhardt says. "I hate missing the Chase. It's like being in college and trying to get into the cool fraternity house and getting passed over. It just sucks. And that's why we're going to do our damndest to get in. I won't take any s--- on the track, and I'll race as hard as I can."
Owner Rick Hendrick has already replaced Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew as Earnhardt's crew chief, on May 28, and he has ordered the organization's lead chassis engineer, Rex Stump, to work solely with Little E's team. But since he's trailing the 12th spot by 285 points, it would take a couple of wins and more than a little luck to get Junior back in the hunt.
"I'm a realist, and I know it won't be easy to make the Chase," Earnhardt says. "But if we can just start running better, we'll at least feel better about heading into next year."
Indeed, Earnhardt and the other Long Shots will be able to start looking toward 2010 within a few weeks if they don't soon mount a charge. These drivers should follow the Jeff Gordon model of 2005. That year Gordon missed the Chase, but over the final three months of the season he and crew chief Steve Letarte, with no points race to worry about any longer, tested different setups each week, hoping to hit on something that would make Gordon feel more comfortable behind the wheel and propel them into the next season. It worked: Gordon blazed to three top five finishes in the final five races of '05 and then began the '06 season with three top fives in the first six events.
Each of the next nine races will have an official winner, the guy holding up the trophy. But behind him, more than a dozen intriguing races will have been run within the race, as drivers and crew chiefs—depending on where they are in the standings—each pursue a strategy that can bring victory even in defeat. Because they're all looking for a finish that they hope will propel them to the starting line that counts, on Sept. 20.
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