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Handful of racers jockeying for precious points

Ken Schrader, left, talks with Jeff Gordon as they wait their turns during Saturday's qualifying for the Sony HD 500.
Ken Schrader, left, talks with Jeff Gordon as they wait their turns during Saturday's qualifying for the Sony HD 500.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

FONTANA, Calif. — Jeff Gordon has dealt with the pressure of championship races.

He's lost some of them — finishing second to then-teammate Terry Labonte by 37 points in 1996 and winding up third, 16 points behind Kurt Busch, a year ago in the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

But Gordon has also won four Cup titles.

Now, with two races remaining before the start of the second 10-race Chase, Gordon is on the cusp, hanging on tenuously to 10th place — the likely final position in the playoff.

Heading into today's Sony HD 500 at California Speedway, Gordon is locked in a battle for a spot in the championship with five other drivers — Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman, grouped within 50 points ahead of him, and Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler, bunched within 34 points behind Gordon.

The top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race of the season are eligible to take part in the Chase, but Gordon is 611 points behind series leader Tony Stewart, so the number probably won't come into play.

That means it's top 10 or nothing.

After finishing 33rd at Chicagoland Speedway on July 10, Gordon was 15th, 126 points out of 10th place. With only two top-10 finishes in the ensuing six races, Gordon has clawed his way back into the Chase — barely.

"There will be a lot of pressure on all of us, but that pressure is something I feel I handle well," Gordon said. "This DuPont team just needs to focus on what we can control and not worry about the other teams.

"However, at the end of the race, you are very aware of the position of the guys you are battling with in the points. You know that passing just one more car may cut the amount of points a driver gains on you, or even add a few more points separation to those behind you."

Gordon is the only multiple race winner on California's 2-mile D-shaped oval, winning three of the 10 races NASCAR has run here. But his last two finishes in Fontana — 37th and 30th — have not been confidence builders.

"While we ran well, we experienced engine problems in both of those races," Gordon said. "I don't see that being a problem this weekend. The guys in the Hendrick Motorsports engine department have been working hard and making gains, so we should have some good horsepower this weekend without having to worry about reliability.

"It takes the complete package to run well here: a good car, good aerodynamics, good handling and a lot of horsepower."

Sadler, 13th in the standings, is the defending race winner at California, but he has been struggling lately, slipping back after running among the top 10 most of the season. Still, he's finding the race for the Chase an interesting challenge.

"It's fun, isn't it?" Sadler said. "There's not enough pieces of the pie.

"I love racing against Jeff Gordon and I love racing against Matt Kenseth. They're both former champions. We've got a lot of great names that are on the outside looking in and a lot of great race drivers that are on the inside that are really becoming the hunted, so it's going to be fun."

And, with California and Richmond, two places where the Virginia driver has done well, as the next two races, he's feeling confident.

"We're pretty optimistic," Sadler said. "We think all we've got to do is go through the motions and get our cars comfortable and we're going to let the points take care of themselves."