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Chase clinching scenarios for Atlanta

NASCAR.com

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We're down to two races left before the field for NASCAR's postseason is set, and just two drivers have clinched an automatic spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

That means eight of 10 automatic berths are still up for grabs, along with two Wild Card spots given to drivers ranked 11th-20th based on number of victories.

Jimmie Johnson clinched his spot in the Chase after finishing eighth at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 11, then promptly finished 40th at Michigan and 36th at Bristol. His points cushion has been whittled down to 18, but he still leads the standings.

The man chasing Johnson, Clint Bowyer, is the only other driver to clinch an automatic spot. He finished 14th last week, but has enough of a gap over 11th-place Brad Keselowski to guarantee himself a top-10 spot in the standings.

Matt Kenseth, who is sixth in the standings, hasn't clinched an automatic berth yet, but his victory in last week's Irwin Tools Night Race gives him a series-high five wins for the season and guarantees the No. 20 team at least a Wild Card berth.

Four drivers control their own destiny heading into Atlanta. Below is a breakdown of who could qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this weekend.

Magic number: 49 points

Following Sunday night's race at Atlanta, any driver in the top 10 of the points standings with a 49-point lead over the 11th-place driver will automatically clinch a berth in the Chase. For perspective: Carl Edwards (768 points, third place) currently leads Brad Keselowski (681 points, 11th place) by 87 points.

Eligible drivers

The top 10 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond receive an automatic entry into the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.

? Carl Edwards. Edwards is in fine shape. In fact, the only way he won't clinch an automatic bid is if he suffers a catastrophic failure early in the race. Because Edwards' lead over 11th-place Keselowski is so large, the driver of the No. 99 Ford would clinch an automatic berth in the Chase by finishing 38th-place or better. Edwards would also clinch by finishing 39th and leading at least one lap (for a bonus point), or finishing 40th and leading the most laps (for two bonus points).

It's a far cry from where Edwards was at this point last season. Following his epic 2011 duel with Tony Stewart in which Smoke claimed this third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Edwards was outside of the Chase heading into Atlanta in 2012 and was in win-or-nothing mode.

? Kevin Harvick. Harvick is almost in as good a position as Edwards. His consistent stretch midway through the season -- coupled with two wins during that time -- has the No. 29 driver at fourth in the standings and leading the 11th-place driver by 79 points.

As such, Harvick clinches an automatic, top-10 berth into the postseason if he finishes 31st-place or better. If Harvick leads at least one lap (for one bonus point), he could finish 32nd and still qualify; if he finishes 33rd and leads the most laps of the race (for two bonus points), he would also qualify.

Harvick has finished 25th or better at Atlanta in 9 of the past 10 races. He was 33rd in 2010 after feeling a vibration and ending the race early. Since 2009, he has three top-fives and five top-10s in six races.

? Kyle Busch. Like Edwards, Kyle Busch controls his own destiny for clinching a postseason bid one year removed from not making the final 12-racer field. Busch has three wins to his credit and is currently fifth in the standings, with a 58-point edge over the 11th-place Keselowski.

Therefore, a top-10 finish would guarantee Busch a spot in the field. If Busch leads a lap (for one bonus point), he could finish 11th and still qualify. If he leads the most laps in the race (for two bonus points), he could finish as low as 12th and still earn the automatic bid.

? Matt Kenseth. Yes, the driver with a series-high five wins hasn't clinched an automatic berth yet. Sure, he's clinched at least a Wild Card, but remember this -- when the field is reset, and NASCAR gives out three bonus points per victory, only those drivers finishing in the top 10 get those bonus points. So if Kenseth somehow slips out of the top 10 after Richmond, he'll still be in the postseason, but he won't get the extra 15 points for all of his wins.

That said, Kenseth is the last of four drivers controlling his own destiny. A seventh-place finish or better at Atlanta gives Kenseth an automatic berth; if he finishes eighth with one lap led, or ninth with the most laps led, he also earns a guaranteed top-10 spot.

? Four more. The four drivers discussed above control their own destiny, but there are four more drivers who could also clinch an automatic spot in the postseason. They are: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano, the drivers currently ranked seventh-10th in the standings.

Junior leads this group with a 33-point cushion over 11th-place Keselowski, while Kahne has a 20-point gap, Biffle is up 17 points and Logano is up four points over his Penske Racing teammate. Remember, the magic number is 49.

All of these drivers would need strong finishes (likely top-fives), and watch drivers such as Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon (and perhaps Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman) finish toward the back of the field.

Wild Card breakdown

Two drivers ranked 11th-20th will receive Wild Card berths into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The drivers with the most wins are selected. If there's a tie, the spot goes to the driver ranked higher.

? Greg Biffle. Biffle is one of three drivers who can clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a win this week at Atlanta. Biffle is currently ninth in the standings and would certainly prefer an automatic bid, but winning at the 1.54-mile track would put the Biff on the fast track to a Wild Card clinch -- although he still needs help from other drivers. Biffle has nine career wins, but none at Atlanta. His best finish there is third in 2005; he finished 15th last year.

? Joey Logano. Logano is currently 10th in the standings with one win this season, at Michigan on Aug. 18. Even though he's only four points ahead of 11th-place Keselowski, a win at Atlanta -- with some help -- could put Logano in the Chase for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. His best finish at this track, though, is 18th.

? Martin Truex Jr. When you're this close to clinching a postseason berth for the second consecutive year ? well, you just drive through the pain. Truex Jr. broke his right wrist in a wreck last week at Bristol, but he's getting a specially fitted cast to allow him to keep driving. Truex currently holds one of two Wild Card spots, but he's in a dangerous position at 14th in the points standings. Keselowski (11th), Kurt Busch (12th) and Gordon (13th) are all above Truex, but have no wins. A win at Atlanta -- and Truex Jr. is good on intermediate tracks -- and some help would give the No. 56 team at least a Wild Card berth into the Chase. Then again, Truex has just two wins in 285 career Cup starts.

? Kasey Kahne. We end with Kasey Kahne, who provides the most complex scenario this week. Kahne is in eighth place in the standings and has two victories this season. If Kahne wins at Atlanta, he would clinch at least a Wild Card spot if two of these three drivers finish in the top 10: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. If Busch, Kenseth and Harvick all finish in the top 10, Kahne clinches at least a Wild Card spot if any driver other than Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. or Ryan Newman wins the race.

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