BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Team owner Roger Penske left Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night confident his drivers, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, would have plenty of chances the rest of this season to race for wins, no matter if either of them makes the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
And while the outcome of Saturday's Sharpie 500 reinforced the fact that, in 14th and 12th position in the standings, respectively, Newman and Busch's fates for the Chase might already be settled.
Everyone at Penske Racing is keen to prove in the season's final 12 races -- half of which feature the Car of Tomorrow -- that they'll be contenders.
That might have to hold them over until 2008, when the COT becomes "TOC" -- The Only Car in use in Nextel Cup.
Despite Busch's sixth-place finish Saturday night and Newman's seventh -- the Penske veteran's fifth consecutive COT top-10 -- they remained right where they were coming into Bristol, and Newman remains 175 points out of a qualified spot for the Chase.
"That's not frustrating -- it's frustrating if you're running good and you blow up, but having a good run is not frustrating," Newman said. "It was a good finish, but like I said before Michigan, we can't expect to make up so many points in three or four races.
"We still have a shot at it -- mathematically we still have a chance, so we just give it the best shot we can each and every lap and hopefully it's good enough. It's good enough in my eyes -- but whether or not it's good enough to make the top 12, we'll see."
Newman has been in the top 15 in the standings, in fact, since the Michigan race in June -- nine races ago, when he was only 75 points behind 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. With two races remaining until the cutoff to the Chase, Newman knows his team's making it is a tall order.
But the next two weekends, at California Speedway and the Richmond short track, according to Bristol winner Carl Edwards, might not be easy to take for either Busch or Martin Truex Jr., who's 11th and only eight points clear of Busch in the standings.
With his fifth-place Bristol finish, Earnhardt shaved the margin to Busch to 158 points, while Newman is 17 points behind Earnhardt.
"If I were 158 points ahead of 13th in 12th position, I'd still be having trouble sleeping at night [because] it's not done -- and until it's done, it's not done," Edwards said. "I think the last spot is still up for grabs. I believe you can gain 140-some points on someone in one race [actually 156 points], so two bad races for Kurt would be rough.
"Anything can happen and the two racetracks we're going to -- California is hard on engines and Richmond is just plain hard, so you never know."
Busch, who's been on a tear since he was paired with crew chief Pat Tryson at mid-summer, particularly in the most recent "standard car" races, where he has two wins and four top-six finishes in his last five starts, said he's aware of the razor's edge his team is treading.
"We're running more consistent, and that's what it takes if you want to be a championship contender," Busch said. "But for us, we still have to get into the Chase -- we're not locked in and we're not losing focus on our big picture, which is two more races."
Newman, whose last win came nearly two years ago in the Chase's opening event at New Hampshire, walked out of Bristol with Penske, explaining a late-race banging match with Earnhardt that was the result of a "miscommunication" over the same piece of real estate.
While both drivers smoothed those waters with their post-race comments, Newman said he enjoyed the "new Bristol."
"It was nice not to see so many feuded cautions -- guys taking each other out in retaliation and things like that," Newman said. "I didn't see it on my end, at least, and it was a good race and they did a good job with the racetrack. It was fun and we had two good days of racing.
"It's not mellower -- I'm still just as whipped as I would be last year. But I think it's a lot racier and not just bumpy."
And any weight he carried was eased considerably by his run of COT finishes, along with recent top-10s at Chicagoland and Pocono.
"It's good to be running so well, and like I said before, we can't expect to make up points in these last four races that we didn't get in the first 22," Newman said. "We can only try our best, hopefully have a good effort and we did with our Dodge [Saturday].
"I was miserable in the car. We just got behind a little bit on pit road and that was enough -- we just didn't have enough to get past those guys. We were good enough to hold our own but couldn't pass them."
Busch said his finish was sealed by a No. 2 Avenger that was too tight at the end, but even given his winning legacy of five victories on the "old Bristol," he was happy.
"The track was obviously the best idea somebody could of implemented into a half-mile [and] I'm happy to race on it," Busch said. "It was just fantastic -- hands-down. I ran the bottom groove like the old-school days, looking like the Blue Deuce hugging the bottom of old, so we need to work on our car a little bit to drive different grooves, but I thought a sixth-place finish was pretty solid."