Two races left in Cup Chase


STAR STAFF


  The battle too see who will be competing in this year's 2004 Nextel Cup Series standings became more visual after this week's event in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol.
  Going into the race this weekend, there was 24 drivers who were still eligible to compete for the Nextel Cup title, but now it has been whittle down to just 16 with two races left.
  Three drivers have already clinched a spot which include Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but positions 4-16 are still undetermined.
  The fourth and fifth place positions are held by Tony Stewart and defending series champion Matt Kenseth.
  All Stewart has too do is start the next two events at California and Richmond and he'll be assured a place in the series standings.
  As for it goes with Kenseth, he just has too keep from posting consecutive DNF's, and he'll almost certainly have a spot with inside the top ten finishers.
  Kenseth could clinch this upcoming weekend at California if he can come away with a top ten finish, providing he starts the Richmond race.
  Kurt Busch and Elliot Sadler are both in good shape, as long as they can finish the next two races in a respectable position.
  The sixth place man Busch and seventh place Sadler cannot afford to have a DNF or get caught up in any mishaps.
  One bad result and it can throw either of the two back into the scrap of battling for the tenth spot.
  The last guy remaining on the list is Casey Mears who could be eliminated if several of the teams ahead of him don't experience some trouble in the next few weeks.
  It will take nearly a miracle for Mears to get in, as he is 145 points behind 15th place which translate in needing to finish first and the competitor to wind up last.
  The six guys who are ahead of Mears have almost an entire one race lead, so Mears only hope is for all the drivers ahead of him must fail to finish.
  This leaves drivers 8-15 left to mention, which will be the focus point in next week's race.
  Kevin Harvick is eighth on the list, but Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray who rides tied for 14th and 15th is just a 50 point difference.
  McMurray enjoyed a solid run all night which placed him seventh at Bristol, while Jarrett managed to avoid disaster with finishing tenth after being spun out by the Cingular Chevrolet of Robbie Gordon.
  "We got up to second or third there and on one of the restarts I got down to the inside and Robbie Gordon tried to drive down on the apron and turned me around," Jarrett said.
  Harvick experienced trouble this weekend after his arm became numb and forced him to drive with one arm.
  Kyle Petty climbed in the Goodwrench Chevrolet halfway through the race, but after losing a couple of laps with the driver change Harvick wound up 24th losing ground to the pursuing group.
  "I knew the only thing to do was have someone replace me, because I knew I could not drive the car with one arm," said Harvick.
  Booby Labonte remains ninth just four points back from Harvick.
  A struggling Interstate Batteries team recently fired crew chief "Fat Back" McSwain, and there's a desperate need to get their program turned around quickly to stay in contention.
  "We have to go out and prove that we can be there, and right now we're not doing that," Labonte said.
  The big winner of this weekend's race was Ryan Newman who marched back into the top ten after a second place finish at Bristol.
  Last year's leading series race winner came back after being a lap down at one point, as he was 13th heading into the event.
  "We look forward going into the next two races, while we have some team momentum," said Newman. "We are going to try to get some top-fives, and that will solidify us for the chase."
  Rookie Kasey Kahne dropped from tenth to eleventh after starting on the outside of the front row in the Sharpie 500.
  Kahne posted a 21st place finish, after experiencing handling problems after the first 100 laps.
  "It felt like the longest race at times," Kahne said. "It was a tough race especially with an ill-handling race car."
  Jeremy Mayfield was knocking on the door of the top ten positions going into the Bristol race, but the Ray Everham owned car had the similar problem as did teammate Kahne.
  A finish of 22nd dropped Mayfield in a tie for 12th just 25 points behind tenth place.
  The other driver tied with Mayfield is veteran Mark Martin who has been in several chases for a Cup title, but has come up short by finishing second on four separate occasions.
  Martin had a good run going and was headed for a top-five finish, but a mistake on pit road put the Viagra Ford down a lap where he wound up 13th at the end.
  "It was a good run for us," said Martin. "We did the best we could and recovered well from getting a lap down because we had such a great car."
  The top 15 drivers with the exception of Mears still have a chance of getting in on the 400 point ruling.
  A bad finish from Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. in the next two races could possibly set the field with as many as 15 cars for the chase.
  It's probably unlikely, but not impossible, so that means there's a whole lot riding on the line with the next two Nextel Cup events.