The upcoming segment of the Sprint Cup season has come to be known as the Race to the Chase - the final ten races of the schedule before the twelve-driver field is set for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

If this were horse racing, the track announcer would be shouting, "Down the stretch they come ..."

And it all begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the running of the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

For some drivers, among them points leader Tony Stewart, there is little reason for concern. For others, notably the bottom half of the top twelve, a lot is at stake in the final ten races of the regular season.

For the Sprint Cup points leader, there's a better chance of a meteor falling out of the sky than Stewart falling out of the top twelve. With a 450-point lead over 13th-place Kasey Kahne, Stewart's focus is on winning, not points racing. Every win during the regular season is worth ten bonus points at the start of the Chase.

"I think we're in a situation now where we can take a couple of extra chances if we feel like we might be able to get another win and pick up those ten bonus points," Stewart said. "It's definitely a situation we're able to utilise because of where we are in the point standings."

At the start of the ten-race Chase, the drivers in the top twelve will have their points reset. Each driver begins with 5,000 points plus ten for each victory in the first 26 races.

"It really doesn't matter where you are as long as you're locked into the top twelve, but those bonus points are going to be important," Stewart said. "So, if you have to go from first to sixth in the point standings because you're taking chances to gain those extra ten bonus points, it's really not a penalty."

Second-place Jeff Gordon and third-place Jimmie Johnson are in the same position. Gordon is 366 points ahead of Kahne and Johnson is 293 inside the Chase.

"Our goal is to make it into the Chase," Gordon said, "but you can't help but keep an eye on the bonus points. Right now, I know we're 20 points behind those with three wins, so I'd like to cut -- or possibly eliminate -- that gap before the Chase begins."

Drivers in the next three spots are in a good position but not quite good enough to do anything outlandish. Kurt Busch is 170 points inside the Chase, Carl Edwards is 137 and Ryan Newman is 132.

It is in the bottom half of the top twelve where the excitement really begins. Kahne trails seventh-place Denny Hamlin by 95 points and twelfth-placed Juan Pablo Montoya by three. In between are Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin.

Then there are the drivers just outside the top twelve: Kahne, David Reutimann, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer are within 70 points of Montoya.

Burton, who fell out of the top twelve last week and is 15th in the standings, 46 points behind Montoya, is philosophical.

"We can't forget that they pay the same amount of points for the third race of the year as they do for the 25th race of the year," Burton said. "At the end of the day, it's an accumulation of all the points you gained in the first 26, so it really doesn't make that race any more important than any other."

by Bill Marx/Sporting News

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