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Chase Watch: Junior Nation can exhale again

From The Marbles

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With only a handful of races left until the Chase, let's take a look at the contenders and the pretenders for both the top 10 and the wild card. Since positions 1-8 are fairly set, let's work from positions 9 downward. And we start with a familiar face:

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. He didn't fall out of the top 10, but oh, did he come close. Tony Stewart's late wreck and Denny Hamlin's wall-smack have provided Junior with 11 points of margin over Stewart and 36 points over 11th-place Clint Bowyer. Who needs tire stacks when you've got that kind of cushioning? Likelihood of the Chase: Highly likely.

10. Tony Stewart. Looking a little shaky for the kid in red. He got a huge break when Hamlin hit the wall, but his margin on Bowyer is now 25 points. Anything inside of 15 gets into danger-zone area, so as long as Smoke keeps the 33 in sight or behind, he should be fine. Likelihood of the Chase: Very likely.

11. Clint Bowyer. A tough road ahead, as Bowyer needs to make up huge ground on the 88 and the 14. He may have put himself too far back with his series-leading 4 DNFs this year. He'll probably need to win a race to get in, and if he does he could leapfrog ahead of Denny Hamlin. Likelihood of the Chase: Unlikely.

12. Denny Hamlin. Provisionally in the Chase because of his win, he could cement his spot (and open another) by gaining 33 points to catch Stewart. Likelihood of the Chase: Highly likely.

13. Greg Biffle. He's more than a full race behind Stewart for the 10th spot, meaning without a win, he's done for. Somebody text me his address and I'll send him some condolence flowers. Likelihood of the Chase: Highly unlikely.

Wild Card

1. Brad Keselowski (2 wins, 14th place): It's been an unbelievable run for JetSki, who now is almost certain, barring catastrophe or miracle finishes in these last four races, to get the very first Chase wild card. Likelihood of Chase: A near-certainty.

2. Denny Hamlin (1 win, 12th place): Hamlin got the break of the season when Paul Menard's tire blew up at Watkins Glen; Menard was closing fast on Hamlin for the 12th and final Chase spot. For now, though, Hamlin is 27 points clear. Likelihood of Chase: Still highly likely.

3. Paul Menard (1 win, 15th place): Menard has to either win another race or run down Hamlin, neither of which is an appealing possibility. He'll always have Indy, but this year, that may be it. Likelihood of Chase: Unlikely.

4. Marcos Ambrose (1 win, 22nd place): Too little, too late for Kangaroo Meat, who's too far back in the points to make a charge. Win or go ... well, not home, but to the bottom of the standings. Likelihood of Chase: Highly unlikely.

5. David Ragan (1 win, 23rd place): That one Daytona win is going to go for naught, as Ragan is almost two full races behind Hamlin points-wise. He'll have to Hail-Mary it and go for a win, which is possible but tough indeed. Likelihood of Chase: Highly unlikely.

6. Regan Smith (1 win, 25th place): After his surprising win at Darlington, Smith has reverted to the mean and continues to run in the mid-20s. Darlington will always be a career highlight, but it's unlikely Smith will be able to match it this year. Likelihood of Chase: Extremely unlikely.

So, at the moment, we have:

Projected to finish in top 10: Earnhardt Jr., Stewart
Projected Wild Card: Keselowski, Hamlin

Your thoughts? Who's staying, who's bouncing?

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