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NASCAR Countdown To The Chase Goes Through Super-Fast Atlanta

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is down to two races remaining in the regular season, and the 12-driver field for the Chase for the Cup 10-race playoffs is nearly set.

Atlanta Motor Speedway
Atlanta Motor Speedway

Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of 103 Sprint Cup races, beckons this weekend with only two events remaining before the 12-driver Chase field will be set for NASCAR's 10-race championship playoffs.

Six of the dozen Chase for the Cup qualifying spots have already been settled, and all but perhaps the final two or three positions most likely will be settled from the outcome of the AdvoCare 500 race at Atlanta on Sunday. The number crunchers have been busy working through various outcome scenarios to determine what it will take from the handful of serious contenders who have a realistic chance of making Chase field to clinch their qualifying berth.

Kyle Busch, the current points leader, five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Columbia, Mo.'s, Carl Edwards have already locked down a top-ten finish in the standings. Kevin Harvick, with three Cup wins this season, and Jeff Gordon, with two, are assured of at least a wild-card spot, but likely will clinch a top-ten position if they can finish 42nd or lower in Sunday's race.

Ryan Newman can clinch one of the top-ten automatic qualifier positions with a finish of 22nd or better at Atlanta, and Kyle Busch's older brother, Kurt, can lock down his spot in the Chase championship round if he is able to come in ninth or better at the legendary 1.54-mile, quad-oval Atlanta racing venue.

According to the "racematicians," the magic number for ninth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr and Tony Stewart, who currently holds down the tenth and final automatic qualifying position in the Chase, is 49. Any driver who has a 49-point advantage over the 11th-place driver in the standings after Atlanta will clinch a top-ten Chase spot. Earnhardt presently is 39 points ahead of 11th-place Brad Keselowski. Stewart's advantage is just 21 points at present.

The Chase wild-card entries go to the two drivers outside of the top ten, but no higher than 20th in the standings, with the most wins. With three wins, Kesleowski of Penske Racing, is assured of at least one of the wild cards and could still crack the top ten if either Earnhardt or Stewart falter badly in one or both of the final two regular-season Cup races. Denny Hamlin, who made the Chase in each of the last two years, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard all have one race win this season and are in a battle to secure the final spot before the Chase field is set for Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 18 and the first of the ten races for the Sprint Cup championship.

Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., once ninth in points this season, has just one top-ten finish in his last eight starts, which has dropped him down to 12th. He is only 24 points back of Stewart, but without any Sprint Cup victories, the driver of the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is in grave danger of missing the Chase this year. He was tenth in the final Chase standings a year ago.

If the top-ten standings stay the same as they are today, or at least with the same ten drivers, after next weekend at Richmond, and Keselowski and Hamlin win the two wild-card spots, the 2011 Chase for the Cup field will consist of:

  • 3 cars for Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.),
  • 2 for Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch and Hamlin),
  • 2 for Roush Fenway Racing (Edwards and Kenseth),
  • 2 for Stewart-Haas Racing (Stewart and Newman)
  • 2 entries for Penske Racing (Kurt Busch and Keselowski), and
  • 1 for Richard Childress Racing (Kevin Harvick).

In other words, it should be a wide open manufacturers' race for the Chase Cup championship.