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NASCAR Handful of drivers on the bubble



Published: Sat, September 9, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and a few other could go either way.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- When the Chase for the championship field is finally locked up, Mark Martin might not be in it. His title hopes are held together by a slim 32-point margin. If Martin falters, it could mean the veteran driver will never win that elusive championship.

Tony Stewart, who wrecked his primary car during Friday's practice at Richmond International Speedway, must now depend on his backup for just the fourth time in his career. If that car is junk, the two-time series champion might not get a chance to defend his Nextel Cup title.

RCR hopeful

And Jeff Burton, in the midst of a career resurgence that has also returned Richard Childress Racing to prominence, could see his comeback season spoiled with a bad run tonight.

Yes, the final Chase qualifier lacks the panache of the previous two years. But as Kasey Kahne tries to race his way into the Chase, a handful of "bubble" drivers still have plenty to lose.

"This is the heat -- I can't imagine there being more interest in any particular race," Martin said. "Unfortunately one is going to be shut out and it's going to be a little sad because all 11 really almost deserve to be in there."

Only points leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are locked into the Chase, a 10-race pursuit of the Nextel Cup title. Kevin Harvick can get in by finishing 40th or better, but every position behind him is up for grabs.

Kahne, the only driver mathematically eligible to race his way in, sits 30 points out of contention. A five-time winner this season, he finds himself locked into a debate over whether victories should receive bonuses that in his case would have him in the Chase.

Excuses

"I don't know of too many situations you'd be in with five wins on the outside looking in," Kahne said.

"You add up all those, and that's a lot of points."

So Kahne needs to be flawless to get in, but making it will come at the expense of someone else.

It could be Stewart, who sits in eighth-place with only a 45-point cushion over Kahne. His weekend got off to a rocky start just minutes into the first practice Friday, when he spun between the first and second turns and wrecked his No. 20 Chevrolet.

Stewart, who must drive his backup car to a seventh-place finish or better to lock himself in, won't budge from his usual strategy.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I'm not counting points. I'm worried about going out and trying to win the race right now."

Inconsistent

Burton, who has been as high as third in the points this season, isn't safe after a subpar run last week in California dropped him to 10th in the standings. Now he's fighting for his season, which has been a breakthrough after several dismal years.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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