AVONDALE, Ariz. - The strategy for everyone in the Chase for the Championship in today's Checker Auto Parts 500 is simple: Don't hold anything back.
Jimmie Johnson's precarious 17-point lead over Matt Kenseth equates to less than four finishing positions, so neither can play it safe.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin are 78 and 80 points behind, respectively, so they have to think about winning to make up a lot of ground with two races remaining.
Kevin Harvick is 105 points behind, so the only thing that helps him is a win, coupled with trouble from the other drivers in the top five.
"I can't go out and ride around in 15th or 20th and be comfortable," Johnson said. "My job these next two weeks is to out perform the No. 17 (Kenseth) and the No. 8 (Earnhardt Jr.) and the No. 11 (Hamlin). I've got to out-perform those guys."
Jeff Gordon is 157 points back in sixth place in the rankings, but he's on the pole for today's main event (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC). To erase 157 points in two weeks is nearly impossible, but as long as there's a chance, Gordon will continue the fight.
"We don't really have anything to lose other than to just try and go out there and win because for us to finish fifth or fourth is not near as important to us as winning it," Gordon said.
"It's all about winning it for us, whether it's the race or the championship," Gordon said. "We certainly know mathematically we're not out of it. But we know it's going to take us having a perfect couple of races and those other guys are going to have to have some problems at the same time."
Gordon's Chevrolet ran 134.464 mph around the one-mile track. Harvick qualified second at 133.973 mph, while Brian Vickers, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, qualified third at 133.949 mph.
The rest of the top 10 are Earnhardt in fourth, Joe Nemechek in fifth, Greg Biffle in sixth, Ryan Newman in seventh, Kurt Busch in eighth, Kyle Busch in ninth and Kenseth in 10th.
Gordon, Harvick, Earnhardt, Kyle Busch and Kenseth are in NASCAR's Chase.
Kasey Kahne (qualified 11th), Jeff Burton (18th), Mark Martin (21st), Hamlin (22nd) and Johnson (29th) also are in the Chase.
Harvick said his strategy has been the same throughout the playoffs. He wants to lead laps and win races.
"I don't think we get too caught up what everybody else is doing," he said. "That isn't hard for us. We just do that every week when we are in position. It is all about putting yourself in that position and with wins as hard to come by as they are in this sport, when you get the opportunity, you have to go for it. If that is the wrong mind-set, I don't know. But if we are in that position, we are going to go for wins.
"You just have to do the same things you have been doing all year. Go in and try to put yourself in position to win the race. If we can't win, we can't finish out of the top five to have any chance going in to Homestead. We need to win one of these next two races to put ourselves in that position and that is all you can do. That is what we are going to do, stay focused on the things that we have been doing and try to continue doing those going forward."
Burton led the Chase standings for four of the first eight Chase races. But a blown engine and a crash in two of the last three races dropped him to seventh, 184 points behind.
"We have seen it throughout the Chase that there is no team that is safe from having things happen," he said. "Neither one of them can afford to finish 12th or 15th and still win the championship.
"I speak from experience; just because you are leading the points, you are not protected from bad things happening to you. It can happen here, as well at Miami, so that is part of the sport that is perhaps the most frustrating; is that there is always danger lurking and stuff that can happen to you."
Reach Don Coble at don.coble.@morris.com.
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