Originally created 08/22/06

Field for Chase is far from set



CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When Jeff Burton's engine failed after 17 laps in Michigan on Sunday, all he could do was watch from the garage as he plummeted in the Chase for the Championship standings.

His broken motor dropped him five spots in the standings to ninth - the edge of elimination.

What happened to Burton could be the norm in the final three qualifying weeks. A lock one week could turn into a long shot the next behind a broken part or a bump on the track.

The final three-race stretch starts Saturday night at tiny Bristol Motor Speedway. Here's how the Chase is shaping up:

WHO'S IN: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth

It would take a total collapse to keep either out. The two have been the most consistent drivers this season and have seven wins between them.

Johnson has led the points for 15 consecutive weeks and has a series-best 17 top-10 finishes. Kenseth has trailed only Johnson in the standings for 12 weeks and used Sunday's win to narrow the gap to 58 points.

IN GOOD SHAPE: Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart

Though Harvick is solidly in third place right now, teammate Burton's failure Sunday has the Richard Childress Racing organization aware of how quickly things can crumble. It shouldn't happen this week at Bristol, where Harvick has one win and eight top-10 finishes in his past 11 starts. But if the RCR motors have a batch of bad parts, his status as a legitimate championship contender could quickly blow up.

Martin capitalized on Burton's demise, moving up two spots to fourth.

Stewart was 11th in the standings a month ago, but he's already back up to fifth.

DON'T MESS UP: Jeff Gordon and Burton

Gordon used a second-place finish in Michigan to climb three spots in the standings to sixth. But the four-time champion is all over the map this season: Good some weeks, totally off others.

Burton has zero room for error. The good thing is his team has been consistent, and he's got 13 top-10 finishes this season.

HANGING ON: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busch has done a terrific job of turning around early season turmoil, but his 39th-place finish at Michigan cost him two spots in the standings. In seventh place now, he can't afford any mistakes.

Rookie Hamlin is the shocker of the field. If he's on the bubble in Richmond, he's a solid bet to make it; Hamlin finished second there in May.

Earnhardt is in serious trouble. Third in the standings last month, he's dropped back to 10th after a rash of bad luck.