Leaders coast to Chase

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. --- It rained Friday afternoon at Watkins Glen International, but Carl Edwards didn't care. He even stood under a tarp, signing autographs and taking time to pose for pictures and talk with fans.

With no pressure to qualify for the upcoming Chase for the Championship, Edwards can afford to drop his guard. The demands of the Sprint Cup schedule usually don't allow for a lot of playtime, but for a select few, the next five races, including today's Centurion Boats at the Glen, is a time to relax.

The top 12 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 6 race at Richmond, Va., move into the 10-race Chase that determines the series champion. Edwards is third in the standings, with plenty of room for error. He's 362 points ahead of 12th-place Clint Bowyer.

"For the next few weeks, I can have fun," Edwards said. "This week's been great. ... I've got no stress. It's just go out and have fun, and that's a real rarity in Sprint Cup competition."

When rain washed out Friday's qualifying session, it forced NASCAR to set the starting lineup by the standings. That means Edwards will start third today (2 p.m., ESPN), behind points leader Kyle Busch, who has won seven times this year, and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jimmie Johnson is fourth, and Jeff Burton is fifth. All five essentially are locked into the playoffs. Jeff Gordon, who's sixth, is 166 points ahead of 12th place. That's where the pressure starts to increase.

"We're able to knock down top-5s, top-10s, and the pit stops and communication, all those things are great. We're just not winning the races," Gordon said.

The next eight spots -- Kasey Kahne in seventh; Greg Biffle in eighth; Tony Stewart in ninth; Denny Hamlin in 10th; Kevin Harvick in 11th; Bowyer in 12th; Matt Kenseth in 13th; and David Ragan in 14th -- are separated by just 116 points.

The points are reset when the playoffs start, and drivers are given 10-point bonuses for victories in the first 26 races. So the only priority for the top five in the next month is wins.

"We don't have any pressure right now; we can go out there and have a good time and go for a win," said Edwards, who has four wins this year. "... We're not really worried about anything other than that."

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