Another race. Another opportunity lost.
Some of NASCAR's most popular drivers saw a chance to help their Chase hopes slip away Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. With nine races left before the Chase field is set, the task becomes more challenging for Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.
Edwards is 11th in the point standings but does not have a victory that could help secure one of the two wild-card spots. If he does not win any of the next nine races -- he's winless in his last 50 races -- and is outside the top 10 after Richmond in September, last year's series runner-up won't make the Chase.
Some of Edwards' problems this season have been the result of experiencing bad luck and not flashing the consistent speed teammates Matt Kenseth, the points leader, and Greg Biffle, fourth in points, have shown.
Edwards' woes Saturday, however, were not the result of bad luck, but bad timing.
Edwards said crew chief Bob Osborne called him to pit road during the final caution but Edwards said he was too far past the entrance to safety dive down the track to the pits.
"I was already so far around that cone [marking pit entrance] that I just didn't feel right cutting across traffic and slamming the splitter down to make it to pit road,'' Edwards said. "We were put in a box. We hoped there would be a caution but there wasn't.''
Edwards tried to save fuel but it wasn't enough. He had to pit in the final laps, giving up a top-five spot. Edwards placed 20th, relinquishing more than 15 points, a loss that could be meaningful since he's 34 points behind Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski, who is 10th in the standings.
Despite his frustration with the finish, Edwards focused on looking ahead.
"We just, we have to stick together as a team,'' Edwards said. "That is what Bob and I talked about last week. I hear it all. I hear everything. I hear, 'He is focused on the [TV] booth, he is tore up over Tony's deal last year [losing the title to Stewart], he needs a new crew chief'. None of that is true. We are having some bad luck and some bad communication here.
"We can do this together. We could divide right now or we could come together.''
That was the message he told his team on the radio after the checkered flag.
"This is not acceptable,'' Edwards said. "We are better than this. We are going to keep our heads up. We are going to keep digging. I'm just as pissed off as the rest of you. ... We've got the best pit crew. I'm going to drive the hell out of this car and we're going to be just fine. So, keep your heads up guys and we'll go kick their ass next week.''
Said Osborne: "10-4, buddy, 10-4.''
Gordon's Chase hopes remain fuzzy. He's been fast but has failed to win. That has him 18th in the points.
His fifth-place finish Saturday put him 10 points behind Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano -- who each have a victory -- for what would be the final wild-card spot.
With 12 different winners in the first 17 races, the consensus is that it will take two victories to secure a wild-card spot. That means Gordon needs to win more than 20 percent of the remaining races before the Chase, beginning with this weekend's race at Daytona International Speedway.
"Yeah, we've just got to keep going to the race track and putting the effort out that we've been putting out,'' Gordon said after his third consecutive top-10 finish.
"This team has been awesome. The cars have definitely shown that and lately we've been getting the results. So you can definitely put some momentum on that and we've got some great tracks that are coming. To get a top-five here at Kentucky, which is definitely one of my worst race tracks ... tells you just how strong our cars are and our team is and what we're capable of doing. So, Daytona is going to be its own beast, but from that point on I think we've got the opportunity to not only put top-five's together, but also get some wins."
Kyle Busch has a victory and is in position for the first wild-card spot, but a string of mechanical issues threatens his hold on a Chase berth. In the last five races, he's had engine issues in three and broke a shock absorber during Saturday night's race.
"We're still within reach and everything,'' said Busch, who led a race-high 118 laps before the shock issue and finished 10th. "We're certainly not running the way we need to be running."
The recent woes have dropped Busch from eighth to 12th in the points.
"One thing that we said we had to work on this year was overcoming adversity and the last several weeks has given us our fair share of adversity and I think we did a really good job this week of overcoming it, staying focused and getting the best finish possible,'' said Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers.
"Kyle was driving a great race. We had a really fast race car and we had a mechanical failure in the back of the car. It's definitely something we need to go back to the shop and fix and make sure that never happens again. I do not think it's related to Kyle getting in the fence earlier. He scraped the fence -- that's part of everyday racing. That's not a big deal. I think we've got to go back and do a little bit better on our design work, make the part a little bit beefier and we'll be fine."
While time remains for Edwards, Gordon and Busch to win and secure a Chase spot, they also can't afford to squander their opportunities.