HAMPTON, Ga. — Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and the other eight contenders in NASCAR’s championship chase can’t afford any major slip-ups at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The rest of the field?
Hey, go for it.
The new Nextel Cup format — 10 drivers competing over the final 10 races for the championship — has essentially created two races within the race.
At today’s Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, the title contenders will be keeping an eye on those around them, either trying to protect their lead (Busch) or make up ground in the points race (the nine guys behind him).
Then, there’s the 33 other drivers who have no chance to win the title.
They can approach the race with a different mind-set. Maybe they’ll gamble on car setup or pit strategy if they feel it gives them a better chance to win. Maybe they’ll take a few more chances on the track, not having to worry about a crash ruining their championship hopes.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” said Joe Nemechek, who’s 21st in the points but will start from the outside of the front row. “The guys in the top 10 have to kind of be defensive. All the guys outside the top 10, we don’t have anything to lose. We’ve got to let it all hang out.”
No one has benefited from the new system more than Busch, who was seventh in the standings after the 26th race — essentially the end of the regular season.
He quickly jumped to second with a victory in the first playoff race at New Hampshire. He hasn’t won since then, but hasn’t finished lower than sixth either.
That amazing run of consistency has given Busch a 96-point lead on Gordon and a 125-point cushion over Dale Earnhardt Jr. The rest of the contenders range from 207 to 364 points behind, needing Busch to take a major fall if they’re going to have a chance in the final four races of the year.
“At the start of the year, we took a long look at how we could take advantage of the new system,” Busch said. “How could we run our best when it counted? That’s what we’ve done for six races.”
Since the playoff began, Nemechek is the only winner from outside the top 10, cruising to victory at Kansas City three weeks ago. He could be in contention again, getting edged out for the pole by Ryan Newman.
In fact, there’s plenty of capable drivers who already have been eliminated from the championship race.
Greg Biffle (20th in the points) has a victory this year and qualified fifth. Rusty Wallace (18th) is another 2004 winner. Bobby Labonte (14th) has claimed six of his 21 career wins in Atlanta.
“They can attack the racetrack with more aggressive stuff,” Busch said. “They can get away with a more aggressive setup. They can take a chance on two tires instead of going with four.”
Busch expects to get a serious challenge from the grieving team. Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, while Johnson is on a major roll with consecutive wins at Charlotte and Martinsville.
Earnhardt always runs well in Atlanta, winning the March race on the 1.54-mile trioval.
“We just can’t give up,” said Earnhardt, whose title hopes took a major blow when he finished 33rd at Martinsville. “We’re still going to race hard and see what we can do.”