Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne need a good race weekend at California Speedway.
The Evernham Motorsports teammates, who are just outside the top 10 in the NASCAR Nextel Cup season points, got off to a good start last night, qualifying second and fifth in the 43-car field for tomorrow's Pop Secret 500 in Fontana, Calif.
Both are battling for spots in NASCAR's new Chase for the Nextel Cup with only two races remaining until the championship contenders are pared to the top 10 for the 10-race run to the finish.
The qualifying effort by Mayfield, tied for 12th in the standings, and Kahne, tied for 11th in the points, overshadowed the second career pole by 20-year-old Brian Vickers, who turned a lap of 187.417 mph. Also overshadowed was the strong showing by 48-year-old Bill Elliott, the semi-retired former series champion who qualified at 186.364 despite running in only his fifth race of the season and first since early last month at Indianapolis.
Mayfield slipped in between the youngest and oldest drivers in the race with a lap of 186.364, with Kurt Busch right behind Elliott at 185.955 and Kahne next at 185.816.
This is such a hard sport for everything to go right," said Mayfield, who will go into the race trailing 10th-place Ryan Newman by just 35 points.
Mayfield is excited about the battle for the top 10.
"It's pretty cool that it's coming down this close just for 10th," he said. "We could come down eighth or ninth this weekend. You never know any more what's going to happen and how the race is going to end up."
Kahne was happy with his qualifying effort, but said the whole Evernham team, from owner Ray Evernham to the workers who stay in the shop in Statesville, N.C., are focused on getting into the top 10.
"We have to run good this weekend or we're going to be battling for 11th the rest of the year, and that wouldn't be as much fun," Kahne said.
While series leader Jeff Gordon, runner-up Jimmie Johnson and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. have already clinched spots in the top 10, there are plenty of other drivers who will go into tomorrow's race with a more uncertain future.
The gap between eighth-place Kevin Harvick and Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray, tied for 14th place, is just 50 points.
Mayfield said Evernham, who won three championships as crew chief for Jeff Gordon before starting his own team, is a very good role model for the whole team.
"Ray's done a good job of keeping our focus on what we need to get done," Mayfield said.
Evernham said it is hard for his relatively inexperienced team not to react to the ups and downs of the season.
"You know, the teams I was with before went into the last race of the season a couple of times with the chance to win a championship or lose it, everything riding on the last race," he said. "These guys haven't been through that, but you keep talking to them and telling them not to get too high or too low.
"We want to get two guys into that top 10, and that makes this weekend real important."
Casey Mears qualified sixth at 185.802 mph, followed by Greg Biffle at 185.773, Gordon at 185.658, rookie Scott Riggs at 185.557 and Joe Nemechek at 185.553.
Mark Martin, tied with Mayfield for 12th, was 11th at 185.553, with Earnhardt right behind at 185.266.
* NASCAR BUSCH SERIES: Casey Mears claimed his second series pole, taking the top qualifying spot for today's Target House 300 at California Speedway in Fontana.
Mears, a Nextel Cup series regular making his fifth Busch start of the season, drove his Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge to a top lap of 182.890 mph, easily beating the 182.228 turned by series leader Martin Truex Jr. in a Chevrolet.
Kasey Kahne was third at 181.997, also in a Dodge, followed by the Chevys of series runner-up Kyle Busch at 181.837, Joe Nemechek at 181.196 and Kenny Wallace at 181.182.