The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is down to serious business with only a quartet of races remaining before a dozen drivers qualify for the 10-race season-ending Chase for the Cup Championship.
As NASCAR's premier racing series heads to the northland this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, one of the older and more established racing venues on the Cup circuit, eight or nine drivers probably have Chase spots already sewed up, but there is still a battle brewing for the final couple of automatic qualifying positions as well as the two wild-card positions.
In addition to the wide-open scramble for the final couple of Chase qualifying spots, there also is a battle going on at the top of the drivers' standings, where Kansas City-area driver Carl Edwards is deadlocked with three-time 2011-winner Kyle Busch. Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is only six points back, with Kevin Harvick, last year's Pure Michigan 400 winner, also lurking dangerously close to the leaders, 14 points behind.
Edwards, a native of Columbia, Mo., is hoping the good history he has at Michigan International Speedway will work in his favor in Sunday's Sprint Cup race there. Edwards has won twice before at Michigan (in 2007 and 2008), and the Roush Fenway Racing driver has finished in the top 10 in 12 of his 14 starts there. His 6.2 average finish at the 43-year-old, two-mile racetrack owned and operated by International Speedway Corp., is the best among active drivers.
While Edwards has enjoyed great success at Michigan, Kyle Busch's last five starts there have not been anything to write home about. The young Busch, a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing team, has just one top-ten finish in his last five Cup events at the Brooklyn, Mich., venue. Edwards will again be pulling double duty this weekend, racing in the Nationwide Series in Montreal on Saturday and in the Michigan 400 Cup race on Sunday.
Eight points separate 11th-place Clint Bowyer and 12th-pace Denny Hamlin in the current standings. The two wild-card entrants in the Chase Championship will come from the drivers in positions 11-20 in the standings with the most wins in the current season after 26 races. That formula will keep winless Bowyer out of the Chase this year unless the Emporia, Kan., native is able to grab at least one and probably two wins in his final four regular-season Sprint Cup events.
Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Gibbs Racing, is in good position to claim one of the two wild-card spots as long as he continues to stay high in the second-ten of Cup drivers because he has a win this year to his credit. Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing, currently 14th in the standings, is reasonably assured of being one of the two wild-card qualifiers, however, with two Cup victories this season.
Hamlin also has a good history at Michigan International Speedway, logging five consecutive top-tens, the longest active streak among drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.
Marcus Ambrose, winner of last weekend's Sprint Cup race at the historic Watkins Glen road course, his first career victory at NASCAR's top level, is another driver looking forward to racing at Michigan. "I think that getting that first win out of the way at Watkins Glen was a big load off of my shoulders, to finally win in the Sprint Cup Series is huge," the young Australian said. "I've been feeling that pressure for some time, so I hope that I'm able to drive a little more relaxed and a little more freer and the wins will come more often."
Ambrose has had two top-15 finishes at Michigan in his last three races there. "We did well there earlier in the year, and I feel like we've got a chance to run in the top ten and contend for another win," Ambrose said.