BRISTOL, Tenn. - Jeff Gordon has all but locked up a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Kasey Kahne, meanwhile, is clinging to one by his fingernails with a gob of other drivers battling to supplant him.
Gordon and Kahne start from the front row in Saturday night's Sharpie 500 with five drivers who're knocking on the top 10's door sprinkled through the first seven rows on the starting grid at Bristol Motor Speedway. Gordon, who took the points lead last week and needs only to start the next three races to earn the right to compete for this year's title, ran 128.520 mph on Friday to win his sixth pole of the season and his fourth in the past three years at this .533-mile track.
"We wanted that pole really bad," said Gordon, who has five career victories at Bristol. "I ran the first lap and thought it was good, but I didn't know if it was enough. So I was pushing so hard the on the second lap I almost wrecked. ...I got really sideways and I would have felt awful to tear it up on the second lap."
Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, did feel awful after hitting the wall in his No. 48 Chevrolet during the first of two practice sessions that followed qualifying. Johnson had qualified 11th, but the damage to his car was enough to force the team to bring out its backup. So Johnson, who went from 232 points ahead of Gordon to 68 behind him after suffering problems in the past three races, will now have to start at the rear of Saturday's field.
Still, Johnson's team is in no real danger of falling out of the top 10 before the season's 26th race at Richmond on Sept. 11. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth also appear to be safe. After that, it gets interesting.
Kurt Busch, who has won the past three races and four of the past five at Bristol, comes into Saturday night's race sixth in the standings but just 123 points clear of 11th-place Jeremy Mayfield. Nobody has won four straight races at Bristol since Darrell Waltrip reeled off a string of seven in a row here between 1981 and 1984.
"Anything can happen at Bristol," said Busch, who qualified 24th fastest on Friday. "You can wind up in the fence with just one small little bump or when somebody checks up in front of you. You are out there just trying to survive."
That, in a larger sense, is what Kahne and the group hounding him will be doing Saturday evening. Only the drivers in the top 10 or within 400 points of first after Richmond will be running for the championship in the season's final 10 races, and the scrum to make that cut figures to be the over-arching story of Saturday night's race.
"It's going to be one of those races where everybody wants one position," said Kahne, who is just six points ahead of Mayfield, his Evernham Motorsports teammate, for that final spot. "You just really need to be smart and not make any mistakes."
Kahne knows firsthand what can happen at Bristol. Earlier this year, he had his second-worst finish of his rookie season when he was wrecked after 57 laps and finished 40th. With just 70 points separating him from 15th, he cannot afford a repeat of that. Sterling Marlin starts third Saturday night alongside Ryan Newman on Row 2. Newman is among those chasing Kahne - he's 13th in the standings, 44 points behind the cutoff.
Jamie McMurray, 15th in points, is inside of Tony Stewart on Row 3. Mark Martin, 12th in points and just 33 behind Kahne, and Elliott Sadler, who's seventh in the standings but just 78 points clear of 11th, are on the Row 4. Mayfield and Greg Biffle, last week's winner at Michigan, round out the top 10.
Dale Jarrett, who is 14th in points, starts 14th. Kevin Harvick, who's eighth in points, starts 21st Saturday night with Bobby Labonte, ninth in the standings, starting 19th.