Originally created 09/17/06

The 'Big Two' are back



LOUDON, N.H. - Television ratings dropped a year ago during the Chase for the Championship when Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to qualify for stock car racing's playoffs.

The sport breathed a sigh of relief this week as both, clearly the two most popular drivers in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, qualified.

The Chase starts today with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, and not only will it feature Gordon and Earnhardt, but also four drivers who've never been in the playoffs.

Only 10 of the 43 drivers in today's main event (12:30 p.m., TNT) are in the Chase, and the list of "nobodies" out of playoff contention is every bit as impressive as the ones racing for the championship.

Gone, and essentially forgotten in the final 10 races are drivers such as defending series champion Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler.

Biffle said if you're not in the Chase during the final 10 races, you're a "nobody." He finished second in the Chase last year - in fact the top-three drivers from last year failed to qualify for the playoffs this year.

"We race for wins, points and for the future," Biffle said. "Those are the things we're concentrating on."

Gordon is off to a good start, qualifying his Chevrolet on the outside pole for today's race. He said not making the Chase a year ago became the team's driving force this season.

"It was a big motivator not being in it last year," he said. "You don't realize how much it stings until guys are battling for the championship and you're not a part of that. That's why we race. That's what has kept me in it for all these years and I love being competitive out there for race wins and for championships. Knowing you don't even have a shot at it was pretty disappointing."

Kevin Harvick, another Chase driver, is on the pole with a qualifying speed of 132.282 mph. Gordon's fast lap was 131.751.

Busch will start third, followed by Newman in fourth, Denny Hamlin in fifth, David Stremme in sixth, Jimmie Johnson in seventh, Biffle in eighth, Robby Gordon in ninth and Ken Schrader in 10th.

Hamlin, a rookie, and Johnson also are in the Chase. Earnhardt is 13th, Kyle Busch is 16th, Jeff Burton is 22nd and Matt Kenseth is 25th.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

TODAY'S RACE

WHAT: Sylvania 300

WHERE: New Hampshire International Speedway, Loudon, N.H.

TV: 12:30 p.m. today, TNT



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