Two drivers trying to nail down spots in NASCAR's "chase for the championship" will start up front in tonight's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway, when the final field for the title hunt will be decided.
Ryan Newman, currently eighth in points but yet to lock up a position in the new playoff format, turned a lap of 128.700 mph to claim the pole for tonight's race. Mark Martin, on the bubble in 10th, made his best qualifying run this season and will start second. The top 10 drivers or those within 400 points of the lead advance to the title chase, which begins next Sunday in Loudon, N.H.
"Not knowing how the race is going to start, it could be the most pivotal pole we've had if there is a big crash in the middle of the field or something crazy like that," said Newman, who won his 23rd career pole. "But to me, it's another day at the office, and so far it's been good."
Points leader Jimmie Johnson will start third. Other drivers eligible for spots in the chase include Jeremy Mayfield (who will start seventh), Kasey Kahne (11th), Kurt Busch (17th), Bobby Labonte (18th), Dale Jarrett (25th), Kevin Harvick (27th) and Jamie McMurray (36th).
ENGINE ISSUES, CONTINUED
Johnson said there are no common threads to the engine issues that have plagued him and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon over the last five weeks. Johnson has blown three engines over that span, and Gordon fried his motor last weekend at Fontana, Calif.
"The problems we've had have been different each time," he said. "At first, I thought that was comforting because it was a freak deal. But now we've had some troubles the last four or five weeks, and it's been something different throughout the cars."
Engines aren't likely to be a factor tonight at Richmond, a short track, or next Sunday at the 1-mile New Hampshire International Speedway. That will change later in NASCAR's stretch run, when the tour visits high-speeds ovals at Atlanta and Charlotte.
"I don't think we'll really lean on the engines until Atlanta or something," Johnson said. "Hopefully, everything will be sorted out by then."
Nextel Cup rookie Brendan Gaughan is out of the running for the championship chase, but he can relate to how the contenders feel. Gaughan was involved in a tight points race last season in the Craftsman Truck Series, where the lead changed hands almost every week and the title wasn't decided until the final event.
"There were four guys, and it was a mini chase for the championship," he said. "If you watched the publicity we got at the end of last year, and the way the season finished, I think that may be where (NASCAR) got the idea. They thought, 'Man, if only we could guarantee that every year.' And they found a way to guarantee it."
-- David Caraviello