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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- After they picked up the pieces of shredded race cars that were scattered along the track following Monday's Sprint Cup event at Watkins Glen, N.Y., some teams are left hoping it was not the demolition derby in terms of their chances of competing for a Cup title.
The crash-marred road course free-for-all occurred just five days before the Sprint Cup Series moves to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, the first of four final races before the field is set for the lucrative season-ending Chase for the Cup championship.
Two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart will come to MIS needing a strong showing to strengthen his Chase hopes, while David Ragan, who recorded the first win of his Cup career last month at Daytona, might have seen his chances for the Chase destroyed by his horrific final-lap collision Monday.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., had to deal with fuel issues and pick his way through a pair of last-lap mishaps to finish 15th, which allowed him to strengthen his points position slightly from 10th to ninth. He wasn't worrying about the math and recalculating his chances of locking up a place in the Chase.
"I'm just racing man. Trying to do what I think is smart," said Earnhardt, whose last Cup win at MIS occurred in 2008. "The guys send great race cars down the road and I just try to take care of them and hopefully we can get the job done. I think we're a good enough team to make the Chase, bar none. We should be able to get in there no problem."
The Chase for the Cup is NASCAR's version of the playoffs. For the first 26 events of the season, drivers pile up points in an effort to be ranked in the top 10 when the series reaches its final 10 races -- The Chase. Over those last 10 races, a season champion is determined.
10 a.m.: Gates open
11 a,m.: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice
Noon: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice
1:40 p.m.: Truck Series final practice
3:40 p.m.: Sprint Cup Series qualifying
9 a.m: Gates open
9:10 a.m.: Truck Series qualifying
10:10 a.m,.: Sprint Cup Series final practice
Noon: Truck Series driver introductions
12:30 p.m.: VFW 200 Camping World Truck Series race
6 a.m.: Parking lots open
8 a.m.: Gates open
12:30 p.m.: Driver introductions
1 p.m.: Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup Series race
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Two more drivers make the playoff based on "wild card" positions, awarded to the drivers ranked 11th through 20th in points who have the most race victories. If that formula does not leave two clear winners, points determine the wild card entries.
Ryan Newman, who sits eighth in the points after his 16th place finish Monday, said he has decided to simply race to win and let the rest of the Chase snarl be resolved by others.
"That's the ultimate strategy. A win takes care of itself," Newman said. "That's pretty much it. I'm really proud of the team, really proud of the effort we've put forth this year and where we're at, having a shot at making the Chase."
Newman said he considered the chaotic run at Watkins Glen an experience in survival. He started sixth, battled in the top 10 before the first round of pit stops, and then surged back towards the front after dropping some 30 positions deep in the field.
"It was one of those days where you leave the track not too upset and not too happy," Newman said. "If our strategy worked out it could have been really good, but when it didn't we played it safe with fuel mileage and just didn't want to take many chances out there today. There was no need for that at this stage of the game."
He plans to keep pushing towards the Chase with this week's stop at MIS, where Newman has won twice in the Cup Series.
"We've been fighting back all year," Newman said.
Newman's teammate Stewart got collected in the last-lap mayhem and stumbled to a 27th place finish at Watkins Glen after contending for a top-10 spot. His struggles at the end of the event forced Stewart to drop from ninth to 10th in the Chase points standings.
"We just go out and try to win the race each week," Stewart said. "I don't know how you can do anything any different. You still do the same things you do to try to win. If you win, you get the most points. Everybody wants to make rocket science out of it. I don't know how to do it anymore than just try to win the race each week."
Ragan hammered his car into the guardrail on the final lap after contact with Boris Said. Ragan's 28th place finish dropped him four places in the points standings to 23rd, which put his chances of picking up a wild card spot in the Chase in peril.
"It's just a product of close quarters racing at the end," Ragan said. "Our UPS team had done a good job. We were going to salvage a top-20 finish, I think, after running out of fuel earlier in the race. I felt like I had a good run."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.