ATLANTA — For a brief time Tuesday afternoon, it appeared Clint Bowyer would make a run at clinching a Chase spot with a finish strong enough to bump Tony Stewart out of the top 10. With 82 laps left, Bowyer was running just outside the top 10 and only 11 points behind Stewart in the Chase standings.
And then Juan Pablo Montoya happened, and, well, that was that.
Bowyer and Montoya had traded paint earlier in the race, but just past the start-finish line on Lap 243, Montoya knocked Bowyer hard up into the wall. His car immobilized, a furious Bowyer climbed out and, helmetless, sarcastically applauded Montoya as he drove by.
"You can't race around the jackass," Bowyer later said on ESPN. "You never can. Anybody in this sport knows what you're up against when the 42 comes up. He dive-bombs the starts and bullies his way up in there, and before you know it, he's in the way and wrecking with somebody. Unfortunately, I was victim this week. It's just a shame. We're out here racing for a spot in the Chase. He's racing for nothing, you know? I'm tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He's just an idiot."
After the race, Montoya was unrepentant, writing on Twitter: "We made some real progress with car. I heard that bowyer wasn't too happy. I guess next time he'll give me a little room."
Montoya, of course, has developed quite the reputation for warring with fellow drivers, most recently with Ryan Newman earlier this year. And this time, regardless of fault, Bowyer's Chase hopes are pretty much doomed.
Here's how things stand with just one race to go:
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Three points ahead of 10th place and 25 ahead of 11th place, Earnhardt appears likely to make his first Chase since 2008. Of course, the way he's been running, he's not poised to make much noise once he's there, but you gotta be in it to hope to win it. Statistically, if he finishes 20th or better, he's in.
10. Tony Stewart: Now 22 points ahead of Brad Keselowski in 11th, Smoke was the greatest beneficiary of Bowyer's misfortune. He managed to turn in one of his strongest performances in recent months when he needed it most by finishing third in Atlanta. Barring catastrophe, he ought to be safe. If he finishes 18th or better, he's in.
11. Brad Keselowski: Clinched a spot in the Chase, either through the wild card or through finishing in the top 10.
12. Denny Hamlin: A top-10 finish means that he'll be able to breathe a bit in Richmond. He's 11 points ahead of AJ Allmendinger, and 62 points ahead of the first other driver with a win (Paul Menard).
20. Paul Menard: If he manages to win, he's in. Similarly, if Marcos Ambrose wins and beats Menard by 7 spots, or if David Ragan wins and beats Menard by 13 spots, they'll get into the top 20 and thus into the Chase.
AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano: All of these drivers are mathematically alive, but the only way they'll win is with a victory and a near-total collapse by Hamlin. So, yeah, not impossible but pretty unlikely.
Chase: Earnhardt Jr., Stewart
Wild card: Keselowski, Hamlin