FORT WORTH, Texas — Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth look a bit out of place this late in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with those zeroes under the column for wins.
But with two races left to determine the four drivers who will compete for the season title in the finale at Homestead, they are in the thick of the Chase race.
Kenseth starts on the pole Sunday at Texas, with Newman starting seventh.
"A championship is still a championship, and the trophy doesn't have the number of wins underneath it. If we win the championship, that would be great in any form or fashion," Newman said. "But we're here to win races as well, and there would be nothing better than to win the next three. There's no guarantee in any of that."
Newman is the shocking surprise among the eight drivers still in contention for the championship. The Richard Childress Racing driver is second in the standings, after starting the final 10-race chase last among the 16 drivers who advanced.
With consecutive top-five finishes, including third at Martinsville last week, Newman doubled his season total. He finished in the top five only twice in the 26 races before the Chase.
"We've gotten stronger as the year has gone. The last two races were nice; to have back-to-back top-fives is something that is much needed at this time of the year for our team," Newman said. "We wouldn't be here if we weren't a contender for the championship. But like I said before, there are no guarantees to anything. There's no guarantees that we don't wad it up on the first lap here and don't make it to Homestead."
Newman won eight races in 2003, but finished sixth in the Cup standings. That also was the year he won at Texas.
Kenseth has won twice at the high-banked, 1 1/2-mile Texas track, where his average finish of 8.25 is the best of any driver with at least five starts. This will be his 25th race in Texas, where his 13 top-fives and 17 top 10s are track records, and where his 775 laps led are surpassed by only Tony Stewart's 801.
Jeff Gordon won the last of his four NASCAR Cup titles in 2001. He goes into the race at Texas as the points leader, and starting on the front row beside pole-sitter Kenseth.
Gordon was asked this week if he feels like the favorite to win the title, or at least the sentimental favorite.
"Maybe sentimental, certainly to the No. 24 fans, I know we are. I think a lot of people would look at it as, "Oh, he is 43 and he hasn't won a championship since 2001,'" Gordon said. "It is all about how you feel about what you are bringing to the track every weekend; and I feel really good about that."
There have been four second-place finishes the last eight races, including last weekend at Martinsville. But he also has a pair of 26th-place finishes in that span.
Gordon said his confidence level is the highest it has been in a long time.
"We've been really strong and we started early on in the season running well. And we've just been able to fine-tune on that as the year has gone on. And that builds chemistry and communication," he said. "You back that up with good performances and wins and getting in the position that we're in now and yeah, your confidence is high. And mine is. It's awesome. It feels good to be feeling this good in this position at this stage of the season."
Going into the final race of the second round of the Chase, Kyle Busch was second. But he got caught in an early accident at Talladega, where he finished 40th and dropped to ninth — one spot below the cutoff for the third, three-race round.
"It's disheartening, it's heartbreaking," Busch said. "You pour every single season into what the Chase is and to get eliminated the way we did is very unfortunate. There's no other way to put it quite frankly.
"All I can do is fight hard the rest of the season to try to finish as well as we can," he said. "Race as hard as we can, maybe win a couple of races and put ourselves in the best points position possible finishing up at Homestead, and close it out, go into next year."
While Busch is out of contention for the Chase championship, he will start ninth Sunday with a chance to complete his first NASCAR weekend trifecta since the fall of 2010 at Bristol.
Busch won the Nationwide race Saturday, after winning in the Truck Series on Friday night.
Denny Hamlin slipped to fifth in the standings even after a top-10 finish last week at Martinsville.
"We're in a decent spot. Not a great spot," Hamlin said. "Obviously, last week kind of let one slip away a little bit there. Still had a decent showing and we go to a track here were we ran really good in the spring. Even though the finish don't show it — we led some laps here and was pretty competitive."
Hamlin led 20 laps in April at Texas, where he won both Cup races in 2010 after a runner-up finish the previous fall.
He will have some ground to make up Sunday, when he starts 20th. The only Chase contender starting lower is Brad Keselowski at 26th, while the other six start in the top 11.