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Chase Outlook Gets Foggier as Sprint Cup Stars Head to Bristol

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COMMENTARY | With just three races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup gets underway in NASCAR's top division, the picture is murky at best: only points leader Jimmie Johnson has secured a spot in the 10-race showdown to crown the series champion. Heading into the Saturday night bullring that is Bristol Motor Speedway on August 24, any driver leaving the 0.533-mile track with a 97-point lead over the 11th-place car is in. Likely candidates at this time are Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Beyond that, it's a guessing game among some of the best in the business.

Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth - With three and four wins, respectively, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Busch and Kenseth are guaranteed a spot in the Chase with at least a Wild Card berth. Busch, currently fifth in points, has five wins and 12 top 10 finishes in 17 races at Bristol, and an average finish at 9.8. Busch is looking to bounce back from a 31st-place finish at Michigan last weekend, and Bristol is a perfect track for him to do so at. Kenseth has two wins of his own at Bristol, plus 17 top 10 finishes in 27 starts; his average finish is 12.9.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt Jr., currently seventh in points, and Bristol don't always agree with each other, and with just 20 points separating him from 11th-place, Bristol could be a turning point in the wrong direction for the Junior Nation. Earnhardt Jr. has 13 top 10 finishes in 27 races at Bristol without a win, with an average finish of 11.6. Earnhardt Jr. also sits in the top 10 in points without a win this season - a dangerous place to be in with such a tight battle in the bottom half of the race to the Chase.

Brad Keselowski - The reigning Chase champ is also in a precarious position - eighth place in points without a win, with only an eight-point advantage on 11th. Keselowski has had good luck at Bristol with two wins in seven races and a third-place finish in March of this year; his average finish is 12.1.

Kurt Busch - This is the feel-good story of 2013: Busch goes from bad boy to poster boy for one-car teams. While in the ninth position in points by just six points over 11th place, his five wins at Bristol and consistent runs throughout the season make him a favorite to put Furniture Row Racing in victory lane, and make his Chase hopes a little bit brighter.

Greg Biffle - After ranking as high as third in points earlier in the season, Biffle has been stuck in the bottom half of the top 10 for the last 10 races, and currently sits perched on the lowest rung in 10th. Biffle has 11 top 10s in 21 races at Bristol, with an average finish of 12.1. In contrast to the three drivers sitting directly ahead of him in points - Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski and Kurt Busch - Biffle does have a win this season, helping his cause for at least a Wild Card berth.

Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. - The current Wild Card leaders, Kahne with two wins and Truex Jr. with one, can easily move into the top 10 based on their Bristol outings. Kahne, 11th in points, is only four back of Biffle in 10th, and has a luxury with two wins, making him the first Wild Card seed. Truex Jr. can just as easily fall out of contention as move into the top 10: he's just seven points up on third Wild Card seed Joey Logano, but just 10 points back of Biffle in 10th. Kahne has one win and eight top 10 finishes in 19 races at Bristol, while Truex Jr. has just two top 10s in 15 races.

Bubbling Under - In spite of the fact that he's already missed two races and is out for the rest of the season, Tony Stewart currently has a better chance to make the Chase than Jeff Gordon. Why? It's all about the wins: Stewart has one, and Gordon has none. With Stewart out of commission, Logano and Ryan Newman are the only other drivers in spots 11 through 20 with race wins, giving them the next-best shot at the Chase. Their best shots at a Chase berth right now involve Kahne or Truex Jr., or both, moving into the top 10 in points outright. Gordon does have five wins at Bristol, however, and an average finish of 9.6, so he can't be counted out.

Sources: "Storylines: Bristol," NASCAR Media, August 19, 2013

"Statistical Advance: Analyzing IRWIN Tools Night Race," NASCAR Media, August 19, 2013

Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at and Skirts & Scuffs.

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