Contenders for NASCAR's new championship showdown will be bunched at the front of the field for the second week in a row to start the Nextel Cup race tomorrow at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.
Rain yesterday washed out qualifying for the GFS Marketplace 400, and the field was filled mostly by car-owner points. Series leader Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Jeff Gordon will start side-by-side in the front row of the 43-car field, just as they did a week earlier at Watkins Glen International.
Johnson said he made an offhand comment to Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, that he really didn't earn the pole position starts at The Glen and in Michigan.
"Robbie said, 'Yes, you did earn this one,' " Johnson explained. " 'Twenty-some weeks you've been one of the most consistent cars out there and have earned this spot in the points.' "
For the first time, only the top 10 drivers after the 26th race of the season -- Sept. 11 in Richmond -- will be eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events.
Barring the unexpected, the top five or six drivers in the standings appear to have little to worry about, except trying to build momentum for the championship playoff.
The major focus tomorrow will be several rows behind the Hendrick Motorsports teammates, with drivers in positions eight through 15 in the standings separated by only 160 points and only four races remaining until the new "Chase for the Cup" begins.
"The farther out of the top 10 you are, the more risks you're going to take out there," Gordon said. "The guys who are sixth through 10 are just going to have to be solid and not do anything to hurt their situations."
Gordon said it's probably too early for any of them to take too many chances.
"The big risks will come with one, maybe two races to go," the four-time series champion said. "As each race goes by, they'll get riskier and riskier."
Johnson isn't too concerned about what will happen tomorrow, even with so many strong entries needing to solidify or improve their positions.
"I'm not really worried about over-aggression by people," said Johnson, who leads Gordon by 40 points and is 426 ahead of eighth-place Kevin Harvick. "You need always to remember who you're racing, what situation you may be in and approach them and race them with that in mind."
"That's what this points system is set up to do, create better racing, some action and more things to talk about."
Johnson also noted that, with the same situation at Watkins Glen, the start of the race went off without a hitch.
"As far as us lining up on points, I think everybody I'm around, especially in the top 10, will be pretty calm and relaxed," he said. "We all know it's a long race and there's nothing to gain right away."
* IRL: After his first IRL victory in Kentucky last week, Adrian Fernandez is eager to get back behind the wheel for this weekend's Honda 225 at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, Colo.
"I can't tell you what a fantastic feeling it was to win last week in Kentucky," he said.
"I am looking forward to seeing a lot of fans that we have in the Denver area this weekend. It will be a good show, for sure."
Fernandez is a veteran of the CART racing series, now the Champ Car series. The Mexican decided to jump to the IRL IndyCar Series, taking his Fernandez Racing team with him.
It wasn't a popular move.
He was criticized for the decision, particularly in his home country. It didn't help that he got a late start to the season and struggled in his first two races, finishing 20th in Phoenix and 18th in Japan.
"To tell you the truth, this year has been very hard in all aspect of business decisions, everything. It's just been difficult," Fernandez said. "You have to make tough decisions for the future of your team."