BROOKLYN, Mich. - For a few drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, the collar isn't as tight this morning, and the nerves not as tender.
For others, the window is almost closed. GFS Marketplace 400 winner Jeremy Mayfield solidified his position by moving from seventh to sixth in the points standings, but other prominent drivers were not so fortunate.
Former series champ Bobby Labonte was one of those mathematically eliminated from the Chase following the MIS race, in which he finished 16th. Casey Mears, Ricky Rudd, Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin were also culled from the Chase yesterday.
Only points leader Tony Stewart, who was fifth in the race, and Jimmie Johnson, second in points, have clinched a position in the Chase.
The format, adopted prior to last season, lets the top 10 drivers in points contend for the season championship over the final 10 races. Following the MIS race, only three races remain before NASCAR makes the cut. The final 10 races are referred to as the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Before the final 10 races, NASCAR reshuffles the point totals to tighten the pack, with the first-place driver starting with 5,050 points and each driver after that seeing an incremental drop of five points. The second-place driver would have 5,045 points, the third-place driver has 5,040 and so on.
"Yeah, that's nice to know that I'm in," Johnson said. "It's comforting to know we'll at least be in the top 10 in points. It's a testament to these guys to clinch it with three races to go. I'm excited for it and it just means we've had a great season. We shouldn't be ashamed of anything."
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who finished 15th yesterday, is still on the outside looking in, standing in 12th place in the points. Gordon was 13th entering yesterday's race, and was pleased he was able to improve his position, even slightly.
"It wasn't pretty, but it was a good points day for us," said Gordon, who had started second in the field. "I'm not exactly sure what it did for us in the points, but I know that we gained points. It just was not a good day for us, performance-wise.
"We've got a lot of work to do before we go to California, because we can't run like that. That part of it was disappointing, but you've got to play the game - and we played the fuel mileage game and it paid off for us."
Gordon said his car finished higher than it should have, so he considers the points boost a bonus.
" I think we had a 30th place car, so I'm actually pretty happy right now," he said. "I'm not happy with the way we ran all day, but I'm pretty happy with the way we finished because it seems like it's the first time in a long time that something's actually gone our way."
Greg Biffle in third place, followed by Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, respectively, seem to have a spot in the Chase all but locked up. The sixth spot belongs to Mayfield, with defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch seventh.
Mayfield's team owner, Ray Evernham, said yesterday's win gives that team some breathing room it did not have in 2004, when Mayfield had to win at Richmond late in the season to make the field for the Chase.
"Last year, those last five races were some of the toughest pressure I've ever been under," Evern-
ham said. "Those guys on the team, having gone through that, I think it makes them deal with this all better. But my theory is that you just race and don't worry about that. My vote is that you race to win."
Former Cup champ Matt Kenseth, in 15th place in points after finishing third yesterday, sounds like he has given up hope on making the elite field for the Chase.
"I was all stressed out about it before Pocono, and after we left there with a 39th place finish, we were so far behind that I forgot about it," Kenseth said. "We're still trying to get as many points as we can, but I am not worrying about it. We're just trying to win races and lead as many laps as we can."
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 18th yesterday, dropped to 16th in points and will likely be eliminated unless he has a run of success, and one of the top 10 has a string of failures.