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Race for Chase heats up
Driver Danica Patrick (7) hits the wall as she slides backwards during the NASCAR Nationwide Series New England 200 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Saturday June 26, 2010. At bottom sliding sideways is driver Morgan Shepherd. Threading between the two is driver Kenny Wallace. - photo by Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. — The Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship traditionally kicks off at New Hampshire. So does the 10-race sprint to make the 12-driver field.

When drivers return here in September, they hope they are gearing up for a championship run. With only 10 races left until the field is set, the pressure is revved up for those around the cutoff mark.

Carl Edwards is clinging to 12th place entering Sunday's race, only 57 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman are lurking behind Junior. Don't count out pole sitter Juan Pablo Montoya or even David Reutimann among the small group of drivers who have a lugnut-size margin of error this summer.

"I feel like we've got a chance," Reutimann said Saturday. "We just need top-fives everywhere we go."

Oh, no pressure.

Points leader Kevin Harvick, four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have their spots all but secured. It would take a string of disastrous DNF performances to knock out NASCAR's elite drivers.

From about ninth in the standings on down, anything can happen.

Tony Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, is 10th and understands how fragile his spot can be down the stretch.

"If you are ninth through 12th right now, you are worrying about just making sure you have enough points to be in it and go from there," he said.

Earnhardt wants to make that field as long as he feels he can realistically compete for his first career Cup title. He's coming off his best two back-to-back races of the season and believes his No. 88 Chevrolet can still find more speed to stamp themselves as a legitimate Chase threat.

"We've still got a long ways to go, man," Earnhardt said. "We've got a lot of work to do to get better and get more competitive. I feel like we're starting to be able to contend, but we've got a lot of speed to find."

Earnhardt, long NASCAR's most popular driver, missed the Chase last year and finished a disappointing 25th. He's made the Chase three times and twice finished as high as fifth in 2004 and 2006. He hasn't been much of a threat to win, much less a championship contender, the last four years. Earnhardt has gone 73 straight races without a victory.

Earnhardt won't be satisfied with making the Chase if he's not a legitimate championship contender.

"We can run like we have the last couple of weeks and make the Chase, but that doesn't win a championship either," Earnhardt said. "We need to step it up because we could make the Chase, but it just becomes a pain in the (rear) because we're in the Chase but we're not contenders and we've got to all the (stuff) you've got to do as a Chase member; going to New York and all that stuff. It just ends up being more work than anything.

"If I'm going to make this Chase, I want to make it and feel like I have a chance to contend and battle in the top five and be around in the last couple of races with a shot still at winning the championship."

For drivers and teams expecting to be part of the Chase, Sunday's race is a great tutorial. Edwards is in a 52-race winless drought and hasn't found Victory Lane since the last race of the 2008 season. He's finished twice and third before at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and needs to start reeling off consistently strong finishes to hang on to his spot.

"Every time I pull into the garage, there's a different group of guys around me, so I know it's close," Edwards said. "There are a lot of guys fighting for that spot. I think I can safely say this is going to be one of the toughest years to make the Chase that we've had."

Taking the checkered flag has been tougher than expected for some of the sport's top drivers. In the first 16 races of the season, only seven drivers have won. Johnson and Hamlin have positioned themselves as the drivers to beat.

Montoya is on a roll with a pair of top 10s and one 13th-place finish in the last three races. The former Formula One star made NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time last season. He failed to carry that over into this season and is 20th entering Sunday's race — 161 points out of the 12th and final place in the Chase field.

"It's cool because it's putting a lot of pressure on us and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform and get the job done," he said. "It's pretty exciting to see."

NASCAR is counting on it.