It's crunch time for Cup contenders

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

INDIANAPOLIS -- This year's Brickyard 400 could be a crucial turning point for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and several other top NASCAR drivers who are on the bubble to qualify for this year's championship playoff.

There are seven Sprint Cup Series races left, starting with today's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to determine the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR's 10-race playoff that opens Sept. 18.

The top 10 drivers in points after the first 26 races of the season qualify for the Chase, along with two wild-card drivers who have the most wins among those who are 11th to 20th in points.

At the moment, Carl Edwards, seeking his first Sprint Cup title, leads the standings by seven points over Jimmie Johnson, who is trying to win an unprecedented sixth consecutive title. Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion, is 11 points behind in third.

Lower in the standings are the drivers on the bubble, including Earnhardt (ninth in points), followed by Denny Hamlin, Stewart, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle in 15th position.

The key for the popular Earnhardt is to either stay in the top 10 in points or quickly win a race, in case he needs it for a wild-card berth. He hasn't won this season and he's never won at Indy in 11 previous starts.

Earnhardt was enjoying one of his best seasons in years until slipping in recent weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was third in points as recently as the Michigan race in mid-June, but he's finished out of the top 10 in the last five races.

"We definitely haven't performed well in the last several weeks," Earnhardt said Friday before the drivers held two practice sessions on a hot, muggy afternoon.

"When things aren't going good and time's running out, time's running out," Earnhardt said. "We're realists about it. I know we've got seven races to try to make something happen. If you get urgent and you get panicky, man, you make mistakes."

Still, "I'm in a position to make (the Chase) right now," he said.

Stewart, a two-time Cup champion and two-time winner of the Brickyard 400, is 11th in the standings. Although he has the same number of points (570) as Hamlin, Hamlin is 10th because he has one victory this season.

Stewart was second in the last race, at New Hampshire, won by his teammate Ryan Newman. "Hopefully if we can have a good weekend here (at Indy), maybe we can get that feeling we're on to something," Stewart said.

But Bowyer said it's tough to gain points positions because "the level of competition is just incredibly close."

Bowyer was in the top 10 in points for much of the season until his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet failed to finish at Daytona and Kentucky early this month.

"That's a huge hit; it knocked us out of the Chase" for the moment, Bowyer said. "I'm just worried about getting back the way we were running before. That recipe was good enough to be in the Chase."

Ragan, who won the summer race at Daytona, is the only driver with a victory among those currently 11th to 20th in points -- and thus a candidate to capture one of the two Chase wild-card slots. But "there are probably 10 guys who are close" to doing the same with seven races left, Ragan said. "There's no reason we can't get to the top 10 ... if we continue to run well."

he said. "But we also could drop out of the top 20 if we lose our focus and we have some bad luck."