0

Stewart only one relaxing
Other drivers scramble to make Chase for Cup

HAMPTON - Tony Stewart can take it easy the next couple of weekends. Same for Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

The real action can be found further down the Sprint Cup standings.

With two races left until the Chase for the Championship, there's quite a battle shaping up for those last couple of spots in the 12-driver playoff. So, excuse Matt Kenseth for seeming preoccupied. Cut Kasey Kahne a break if he's not in a talkative mood. Even Greg Biffle, relatively secure with the eighth spot in the standings, is feeling a bit on edge.

'Certainly there's a lot of pressure,' Biffle said Saturday, standing outside his hauler after practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 'I don't think we can play it safe.'

Some of this will get sorted out tonight in the Pep Boys Auto 500, when NASCAR holds its first scheduled race entirely under the lights at this high-speed, 1.54-mile trioval south of Atlanta, a track that's notoriously hard on tires and tends to separate the best drivers from the pretenders.

As usual, there are subplots all around. Carl Edwards is fifth and looking good for the Chase, but he was hobbling around the garage on crutches after breaking his right foot playing frisbee. He'll be racing, of course, because this is no time to get out of the car.

'I hate to say it, but I probably won't be doing back flips for six to eight months if I win,' quipped Edwards, referring to his signature celebration off the roof of his car.

His rivals couldn't resist the chance to have a little fun.

'At least say you were playing rugby or football, or scaling a mountain or something. But playing frisbee?' Biffle said, managing a smile in a stressful time.

Outside the championship race, former Cup winner Bobby Labonte was forced to scramble for a new ride after his regular team dumped him for the next seven races because of sponsorship issues. Yates Racing was able to line up funding for the No. 96 Ford, but only if it put 26-year-old Sprint Cup neophyte Erik Darnell in the car.

Labonte landed with TRG Motorsports' No. 71 Chevrolet, which gave him a shot to continue his streak of 568 consecutive starts - second among active drivers only to Jeff Gordon's 569.

'I'm not going to rule out anything anymore,' said Labonte, who's with his third team in two years. 'It's been a little tough.'

Stewart, a three-time winner and comfortably atop the standings in his first year as a car owner, didn't have to worry about those sort of issues. In fact, the notoriously cranky driver seemed downright jovial as he looked ahead to racing in Atlanta and next week at Richmond, where the Chase field will be finalized.

'I am racing 100 percent pressure free,' Stewart said. 'We have absolutely nothing to lose. We can't be bumped out of the Chase. We can finish 43rd the next two races and still be in the Chase. The next two weeks, we're going to do what we can to win the race and get those 10 extra bonus points. It's really all or nothing for us.'

Stewart has a 220-point lead on Johnson, the three-time defending Cup champion who will be awfully tough to beat once they start racing for the biggest prize. The cool Californian is trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight titles.

'I've never felt this good about starting the Chase in the past,' Johnson said. 'The car is spot on. Mentally and physically, this is the best I've ever been.'