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Cup drivers feeling the squeeze of playoff race as Chase edges nearer


BROOKLYN, Michigan -- The pressure is increasing for some of NASCAR's biggest names as the Sept. 6 cutoff for The Chase nears, and that pressure was never more evident than at Michigan International on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin, once a prime contender for the Sprint Cup title, is close to falling out of the Chase. After his Toyota engine blew up just six laps from the finish in Sunday's 3M Performance 400, "Ham Bone" dropped to 39th in the race. He also believes his chances of making the 12-driver Chase field went up in smoke, too, as he is just 26 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, who's 13th in the standings. "At this point, we don't deserve to be in the Chase," Hamlin said in the garage area.

He's not the only one feeling the heat as the series heads to Bristol for Saturday night's demolition derby on the high-banked short track. Jeff Gordon's next-to-last finish at Michigan dropped him from sixth to ninth in the standings and he is only 56 points out of 13th place. Without a victory this season and only three races left in the so-called regular season, the four-time champion has good reason to feel uneasy about his chances at making The Chase. At least now, however, Gordon knows he has to go out and race with a purpose rather than playing the points game and taking it conservative.

"I'm relieved because we've been [saying] every week, 'Well, we can't take too big of a risk but we got to push hard enough,'" Gordon said. "I'm relieved. Now we just don't worry about anything. We can just drive as hard as we can, do anything we possibly can, and just go all out and we'll see where we end up."

Where Dale Earnhardt, Jr., ended up Sunday was 23rd after his car went completely sideways coming out of a turn and smacked the wall. He had been in the front three times for 43 laps at the 2-mile oval where he won in June.

"Yeah, I can drive 'em man, they're just hard to drive like that all day," Earnhardt said. "I ran fifth all day and maybe better than that at some parts of the race, and I'm a good enough driver. I should have finished somewhere around there with that car.

"I don't know. For me it's been the same old story," he added. "We show up fast but we can't put a whole race together. So we've got to do some homework. We've got to science it out and figure out what the heck is going on, because we are sure fast when that race starts. But I've been like that my whole career."

Fourth in the standings, Earnhardt is certainly safe in the Chase, although nobody has mathematically clinched a spot yet. And with the prospect of a crashfest at Bristol, the standings could be scrambled by the end of the week.

Kyle Busch finished second to Carl Edwards on Sunday but admitted, uncharacteristally, he was no match for the race winner.

With four drivers from Roush Fenway Racing in the top five, Busch felt like he was in a "four-on-one" back alley fight. "All the Roush cars tend to run well at these mile-and-a-half and two-mile race tracks," Busch said. "They have something working for them. It's going to be hard to beat that 99 (Edwards) and we found that out again today.

"I'm happy we ran that good and there is something to build on, but we're still not as good as those guys for some reason."

Busch leads the series with eight victories but Edwards is closing after his fifth of the season. With three races left in the regular season, if Edwards wins all three, he would tie Busch in bonus points.

Busch still has a 222-point lead over Edwards in the standings, but the points will be reset when The Chase begins at New Hampshire on Sept. 14.

"We were about the best car at the end to keep up with the 99," Busch said. "We weren't able to win today, but somebody else has to take it every once in a while.

After winning Sunday's race, Carl Edwards was asked what it does for his psyche to beat Kyle Busch at this stage of the season.

Edwards delivered with one of the best responses to a question this year.

"My psyche and mentality is pretty much fixed on I'm the greatest race-car driver that ever lived," Edwards said. "Know what I'm saying? That's what David Pearson told me, that if you don't believe that, you don't belong in a race car.

"Deep down, you really have to believe in yourself, and I think everyone who performs at a high level in every sport does. I was watching the Olympics and it struck me -- you see individuals that achieve so well and they achieve such great things, and there are all the other folks who don't. And just having the guts to go out there and jump in the water and swim or go run 100 meters in front of the whole world and compete, you know you have the chance to lose, but you just have to do the very best you can. That's all you can do."

Crew chief Bob Osborne was asked the same question and came back with a more self-deprecating response.

"Actually, I don't think I'm the best crew chief out here," Osborne said.

After the two Nationwide Series cars at Joe Gibbs Racing were caught cheating on the post-race run on the chassis dyno, which measures rear-wheel horsepower, the most dominant team in Nationwide this season is tarnished.

And that has squeaky-clean team owner Joe Gibbs irate and embarrassed.

"If this alleged incident proves true, it goes against everything we stand for as an organization," Gibbs said in a statement released to the media. "We will take full responsibility and accept any penalties NASCAR levies against us. We will also investigate internally how this incident took place and who was involved and make whatever decisions are necessary to ensure that this kind of situation never happens again.

"The expectations we set for everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing begins with me, and I personally apologize to NASCAR, our partners and our fans for the negative light this situation has cast upon all of us."

Expect to see NASCAR issue some serious penalties and expect to see some team members fired.

JGR's accomplishments this season have been sterling, shiny examples of NASCAR racing at its best. Now, Gibbs hopes this scandal doesn't tarnish its impressive accomplishments.

"I would say if it was an on-track thing, it definitely would stain it, but being an off-track thing and kind of playing around with the dyno, personally I don't see how that would affect those wins there," Gibbs said. "Again, hey, it's still a serious issue with NASCAR, even if it is off of the track and went to the dyno. There's no reason for that."

When Sam Hornish Jr. was one of the best drivers in the IndyCar Series, his sister and mother would organize the annual bus trip from his hometown of Defiance, Ohio, to Michigan International for the annual IndyCar race. As many as 1,500 fans would make the 75-mile trip to cheer on their hometown hero.

Times have changed. Hornish is no longer an IndyCar driver but a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie. And the bus trip to the NASCAR race doesn't happen anymore because it was too hard to arrange for all his fans to sit in the same section at the more crowded NASCAR events. And, MIS was dropped from the IndyCar schedule beginning in 2008.

But those fans who came to Michigan for Sunday's 3M Performance 400, saw Hornish finish 22nd in a Penske Racing Dodge. He was the highest-finishing rookie and continues to show improvement during a difficult rookie season. He is 33rd in points and that is important because the top 35 teams are locked into the starting lineup for every race.

Even with more races and fewer off weekends, Hornish has enjoyed the nearly non-stop schedule in NASCAR than what he did in IndyCar.

"It all goes by pretty quick," Hornish said. "I enjoy the time getting to race. I hate the testing when you are not running. This is a lot more comfortable because you have so many races because you are doing what you love to do, which is race."

Hornish won 19 IndyCar races, including the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and three IndyCar Series championships. He continues to follow the series by recording IndyCar on TiVo.

He is impressed with the season Scott Dixon is having as he closes in on his second IndyCar title with a record-tying six wins this season.

"Those are the kind of years you want to have," Hornish said. "Scott has done a great job and the way I look at it, when you have that little bit of luck on your side where you can't do anything wrong, that's a great place to be in."

One of the most active sponsors in NASCAR, UPS, is expected to leave Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of this season and has been linked to Roush Fenway Racing as the sponsor for David Ragan.

UPS enjoyed a successful sponsorship with former driver Dale Jarrett at both Robert Yates Racing and later with MWR. But after Jarrett retired following the Bristol race in March, David Reutimann took over Jarrett's car.

Apparently, too many packages arrived damaged or were misdelivered with Reutimann behind the wheel of the No. 44 Toyota, so UPS is hoping a new driver can haul the freight in 2009.

Michigan International is one of two tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule (New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the other) that plays both the Canadian and American national anthems before each race.

Patrick Carpentier of Quebec admits he gets a little misty-eyed when he hears "Oh, Canada" on American soil.

"I love it when they play that but my kids were born as American citizens in the US," Carpentier said. "We are half-and-half in the family as American and Canadian citizens. There are so many Canadians here it is amazing. When I was in IndyCars, they played it at Michigan and that was always special to me."

Carpentier drives for Gillett Evernham Motorsports and is currently in negotiations to remain with the team next season.

"We talked and they said we need a little bit more time," Carpentier said. "We'll see what happens. I like this team and I'd like to stay here. The No. 10 is getting better and better. To me, I'd be disappointed to not stay here.

"For me, I would have signed myself in January for three years. I'm pretty confident it will stay the way it is. We're waiting on a few things before the contract is settled. They told me it is looking good, so most likely it is going to be positive. If not, they will let me go."

"I don't know what Murphy's Law means."

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. when asked if Sunday's race was "Murphy's Law" for Hendrick Motorsports.

"I can't believe my good fortune. I've been in the presence of really fast company, starting with Mark Martin here in 1988. We didn't win in '88, but we were in contention from the very beginning, and, of course, he put his mark on our program and on our cars and our strategy and on our thinking."

-- Team owner Jack Roush after Carl Edwards gave

"I don't know that anything I've done in the last eight months has been a secret."

-- Tony Stewart before announcing Ryan Newman as his teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

"We only had to sedate him for about four straight days, at which point you have the subliminal messages you just replay over in a loop. After four days of that, I was really surprised, it took really well. He woke up and seemed to think that the week went by really quick."

-- Tony Stewart on what it took to convince Ryan Newman to join his team.

It's time for a double-dose of racing at its finest as NASCAR travels to Bristol for one of its most popular races of the season -- the Saturday night race under the lights. This may be the hottest ticket in NASCAR, with 160,000 fans filling the track waiting to see 43 cars try to get around the half-mile, high-banked speedway. It's a combination between Michigan Stadium for a University of Michigan football game and wrestling on wheels. Expect to see plenty of sheet metal crumpled in this one.

The second dose of racing action comes with the IndyCar Series traveling to Sonoma, Calif., for a traditional road course race at Infineon Raceway. This is one of the best trips of the year for any IndyCar fan who can experience the breathtaking beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area and Napa Valley while attending a race in a most picturesque location.