Jimmie Johnson had few worries most of the season, seemingly cruising along to the Nextel Cup points lead with ease.
Then a rash of engine troubles infected the Hendrick Motorsports fleet, knocking Johnson out of three consecutive races. Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte have also had motor problems, sending the organization scrambling to iron out the kinks before NASCAR's 10-race playoffs begin.
"I think everybody is concerned, not only myself but all the drivers," Johnson said Friday before qualifying at Richmond International Raceway. "The problems we've had have been different each time.
"At first I thought that was comforting because it was a freak deal, and now we've had some troubles for the last four or five weeks and it's been something different in the cars. You're always nervous and you're always concerned."
Johnson held the points lead for eight consecutive weeks before three DNFs in early August. He then lost his lead to Gordon, but regained it last weekend when Gordon's engine failed.
But NASCAR will reset the points after Saturday night's race, and the top 10 in the standings will run for the Nextel Cup title over the final 10 events of the season.
If Johnson leaves RIR with his lead intact, he'll start next week with a five-point advantage over the second place team. But one poor finish in any of the remaining events could ruin a drivers' chance at the title, so Johnson and Gordon can't afford any more engine troubles.
"We had the magic at the beginning of the year and through the middle," Johnson said. "Right now we're strong, but we're not the dominant car. You stub your toes along the way. Hopefully we'll have everything in line for these final 10 races."
The Heat Is on Harvick
The pressure is on Kevin Harvick, who skipped a news conference NASCAR held for all drivers mathematically eligible for the chase for title Friday.
Harvick had been clinging to his spot in the top 10 the past month, then plummeted out last week when his 28th-place finish dropped him to 15th in the standings.
He's now 55 points out of 10th place, and car owner Richard Childress said Harvick will have to be perfect on Saturday night to make it into the playoffs.
"I think he's going to have to lead a lot of laps, win the race, and hope some of the people in front of him have some trouble to get in," Childress said. "It's going to be a chance to see how tough we are."
But there's a chance Harvick could have health issues holding him back.
He had to get out of his car two weeks ago at Bristol when his arm went numb during a long green-flag race. Childress thinks Harvick has a pinched nerve, and said he was probably only at 80 percent last week in California.
Since Richmond is also a physical track, Childress worried Harvick's arm might bother him again.
Jamie McMurray is heading into Saturday night at ease, refusing to get stressed about the race for the championship.
McMurray is 11th in the standings, 25 points out of 10th. He's also 449 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, and if he can pull within 400, he'd also qualify for the chase.
But McMurray said he plans to just go out and race Saturday night and see where he shakes out at the end.
"I'm pretty young, I've never had any stress in my life," he said. "I've had a pretty good life."
If McMurray gets shut out, it will be hard for him not to look back on the 25 points NASCAR docked him earlier this season for an infraction at Bristol. But McMurray can point to other things this season to blame.
"We've run well enough to be in the top 10, but when you have six or seven DNFs, that's why we're here right now," he said. "You can't reflect on just one thing."
A New Start
Three weeks into his new deal driving for Richard Childress, Virginia native Jeff Burton said he's already encouraged.
"What we've done the first three weeks, I'm real excited," he said.
Burton brings a 101-race winless streak into tonight's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway. The 37-year-old has 17 career victories, but none since Oct. 28, 2001 at Phoenix.
Since leaving Jack Roush following a 12th-place run at Watkins Glen, Burton has finished 12th, fourth and 15th in the Childress Chevrolet.
The fourth-place run at Bristol matched his best result of the season, and the 1994 rookie of the year said the next step is pretty obvious.
"We need to win. I mean, we've got all the pieces there, we've got all the parts there, we've got the people there. We just need to put it together," he said. "There's no reason the 38 AOL team can't win races."