SKIP STEWART / AP Enlarge
CHARLOTTE - When Kurt Busch wrecked out of the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he just might have taken Kevin Harvick's championship hopes with him. A victim of Busch's slip, Harvick finished 37th and fell to 13th in the Chase for the championship.
Of course, he's been out of the top 12 before this season, and he's well within striking distance now at just two points out of the final qualifying spot.
At the same time, there are just six races to go to decide the field and Harvick and the rest of the drivers on the bubble can't afford any more slip-ups.
Harvick, who was on the bubble last year and still made the Chase, won't let his precarious spot change his strategy.
"It doesn't really matter. You just race as hard as you can every week," Harvick said. "We have had some really good cars since Sonoma, but haven't been able to capitalize every weekend. We have had some bad weeks that have been out of our control. I am very confident in my team and I think we will do everything we can do to make the Chase."
If the Chase began this weekend, the field would consist of Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.
But the standings are so close from seventh to 15th that the field could change weekly between now and the Sept. 6 "regular season" finale at Richmond.
For example, Hamlin used a third-place finish last week at Indianapolis to move off the bubble and gain a bit of breathing room. Ranked 12th before Indy, he moved up four spots to eighth.
Kahne gained two spots and moved up to ninth. Now he heads back to Pocono with the same car he won with in June, intent on solidifying his spot in the Chase.
"We saved the same car. The car was brand new for the first Pocono race and it's been waiting to go back," he said. "I don't see why we can't have a shot at another win. As good as it was the first race, if we do the right things, we should have another shot."
Bowyer was the beneficiary when his Richard Childress Racing teammate fell out of the top 12. Bowyer is now in the final qualifying spot, albeit with a mere two-point advantage over Harvick.
Kenseth was the biggest victim of the tire problems that plagued Indianapolis. He blew a right rear fairly early in the race, and the explosion tore a chunk of the quarter panel off his Ford before it went spinning through the grass.
He finished 38th and dropped three spots in the Chase standings to 11th. He's only six ahead of Harvick now, in position to fall out at any time.
"Last weekend was a huge disappointment for us," he said. "We unloaded pretty good, with high hopes for a good finish. So, blowing a tire like we did and tearing up our car was pretty embarrassing. This weekend we're looking to bounce back at Pocono, which has really been one of our tougher tracks.
"A solid finish at Pocono would go a long way toward gaining some momentum in this stretch run leading up to the Chase."
So who does that leave on the bubble?
Well, Harvick for one. He was in a similar position last year when he hovered at the bottom of the top-12 during the stretch run. Although he grew weary of being asked about strategy, he never changed a thing and earned a spot in the field.
Now he's vowing to do the same.
"I am planning on just going out there and racing as hard as I can," he said. "I mean, you might not take a chance on fuel or a different pit strategy to win a race, but you really don't do much different."
Right behind Harvick is David Ragan, the surprise of the Chase contenders.
The second-year Roush Fenway Racing driver is having a remarkable season considering his rookie-year struggles, and he's just 56 points out of 12th.
But Pocono could be the make-or-break race for Ragan, who has qualified 30th or worse in his three starts there and has never finished higher than 24th.
"I've struggled," he admitted. "But we've had some good runs recently, so hopefully we can build off of that momentum. We need to go there and get a good run."
Behind Ragan is Brian Vickers, who is 132 points out after engine issues in Indy led to a 42nd-place finish. But Vickers can make some ground when the series returns to Pocono and Michigan over the next month. He was second at Pocono in June and followed it with a fourth-place finish in Michigan.
Beyond Vickers, the last driver with a chance - albeit an outside one - is Ryan Newman. The Daytona 500 winner is 16th in the standings with significant ground to make up.
PITTSFORD, N.Y. - NASCAR's apology went only so far with driver Ryan Newman, who held the governing body responsible for the tire fiasco that ruined the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.
"NASCAR has the ultimate responsibility," Newman said during a visit to Buffalo Bills training camp in suburban Rochester. "They are the Barnum and Bailey. They know what's going on in the center ring. And if they put a tiger out there that's going to bite somebody, then that's their responsibility."
He was careful to say he wasn't referring to NASCAR as being a circus in voicing his frustrations over a stop-and-go race in which the longest run under green was 13 laps. What troubled Newman, who is from Indiana, is that the problems occurred at Indian-
"Let's just say, there's 100 years of automobile racing there. And I bet going back to 19-0-whatever, they didn't have tire problems," Newman said.
The trouble was blamed on a durability issue involving the compound of the tires Goodyear selected not being strong enough when combined with NASCAR's current car.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton issued an apology Tuesday, saying: "I can't say how sorry we are and it's our responsibility being NASCAR that we don't go through this situation again."
Newman, however, said the apology was no consolation to fans.
"No, because you've got 250,000 people that spent time there, their money and took their families to see a great race. And all they saw was a 12-lap window max I think of racing," said this year's Daytona 500 champion, who finished 13th last weekend. "And that's not the way racing in NASCAR is supposed to be."
Newman did say "it was big" of NASCAR to apologize, but then criticized the governing body, Goodyear and track officials for failing to communicate.
BRISTOL, Tenn. - Jimmie Johnson, coming off his victory in last Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, has added a pair of races to his 2008 schedule.
In addition to his duties behind the wheel of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the two-time reigning Sprint Cup champion will make his Truck Series debut in Bristol on Aug. 20 - driving for NFL star Randy Moss. Johnson will drive the No. 81 Kobalt Tools Silverado fielded by Randy Moss Motor-
Johnson also will drive the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet fielded by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 9.
In Nationwide, Johnson has made 88 starts, with his only victory in 2001 - his second and final full season in the former Busch Series - at Chicagoland.
BROOKLYN, Mich. - The Indy Racing League will not be returning to Michigan International Speedway in 2009.
For a second straight year, the track at Brooklyn is not on the 2009 schedule released yesterday by the IRL. It does include a Sept. 6 race at Belle Isle in Detroit.
The IRL and MIS parted ways after the August, 2007 race because they couldn't agree on a new contract, ending a decades-long relationship. The Detroit Indy Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle the following month after a six-year absence and is scheduled for Aug. 31 of this year.42.11068 -84.24795