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Storylines: Don't overlook Vickers

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

It is fact that no driver has scored more points over the past seven races than Brian Vickers. Not Tony Stewart. Not Jimmie Johnson. Not anyone.

Yet Vickers has remained an afterthought in the race to the Chase as much of the focus has fallen on Mark Martin and Kyle Busch, bubble drivers despite each winning a series-high four races.

With two races to go before the Chase field is set – including Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway – Vickers sits 14th in the standings, 39 points out of a spot in the 12-driver playoff.

This is his best shot to qualify for NASCAR's postseason, something he's never done. Considering how he's performed over the past two months, he'd have to be put on the list of legit championship contenders – above at least seven of the drivers ahead of him in the standings.

We know Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon top the list of favorites. They're followed closely by Martin and Busch, assuming they make the postseason. Denny Hamlin also is looking solid. And Vickers should be next.

"We are still very much in this," Vickers said following his 12th-place run at Bristol.

Vickers will start eighth on Sunday.

Here are five other storylines to watch for Sunday night:

1. Will Carl Edwards' broken foot be an issue?

More than once, Edwards needed another chance pulling into his garage stall at AMS, his broken right foot giving him problems finessing the accelerator. When he finally maneuvered his car into the tight spot, a set of crutches were awaiting him as he climbed out of his cockpit.

The injury he sustained earlier this week while playing Frisbee has undoubtedly changed the way Edwards will do things in the foreseeable future. For starters, no more post-victory back flips.

But to get to that point, he'd have to win.

Edwards is wearing a removable walking cast, but not inside the car. There, he's using a specially made splint that fits inside his racing shoes. Still, he's not without difficulty. He acknowledged Saturday that he's having trouble getting comfortable holding down the accelerator.

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Carl Edwards' broken right foot will take about eight weeks to heal.
(Getty)

Edwards will be uncomfortable racing 325 laps on Sunday. That's a given. Where it will affect him the most is getting on and off pit road and maintaining the feel of his car. Tire wear is a significant issue on the abrasive AMS surface, and drivers depend on their feet to maintain a feel for how the tires are losing grip. Edwards' "feel" won't be the same.

"In the past, I've had a habit of bending pedals because I feel like the harder I push on that pedal the faster the car goes – and now I have to really, really push on it softly," Edwards said, adding that the injury will take about eight weeks to heal. "The pain isn't that bad unless I push too hard on the pedal and, trust me, I know right when I push too hard on the pedal."

2. Who will clinch a spot in the Chase?

Any driver who leaves Atlanta with a 162-point lead over the 13th-place driver and starts next week's race in Richmond will clinch a spot in the playoff.

Locked in already are Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Denny Hamlin (230-point lead over 13th), Carl Edwards (199) and Kurt Busch (192) aren't locked in yet, but they're close. That leaves six spots realistically still up for grabs.

Vying for those six spots are Ryan Newman (84-point lead over 13th), Greg Biffle (75), Juan Pablo Montoya (64), Mark Martin (60), Kasey Kahne (52), Matt Kenseth (34), Kyle Busch (34 points out of the Chase) and Brian Vickers (39 points out).

"It's a tight battle," said Kahne, who last qualified for the Chase in 2006. "Any little mistake can definitely cost you a lot of points and hurt your chances. We had a lot bigger point cushion heading into Bristol, and just one race later our points were cut in half."

Of the bubble drivers, Kenseth, Biffle and Hamlin have the best track records at Atlanta, while Montoya has only one top-10 finish there in five tries.

3. Who has their intermediate track act together?

Jimmie Johnson has won the past three Sprint Cup titles on the back of his strong performance on the intermediate tracks, the likes of which make up five of the 10 Chase races. His average finishes on intermediate tracks in the past three Chases are 5.8 (2006), 5.2 (2007) and 7.8 (2008).

So chances are the winner of the 2009 Sprint Cup will be the driver who best handles the intermediate tracks – and for those teams still trying to get better, Sunday's race at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway is their last chance.

Heading into Sunday's race, Jeff Gordon has the best average finish (7.3) on intermediate tracks, but it's Mark Martin who has the most wins: four in 15 races.

4. Will lights and Labor Day weekend make a difference for Atlanta Motor Speedway?

As Jay Busbee details, empty seats have become a tradition at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The situation got so bad there that the track opted out of the Chase for the Labor Day date.

While it may seem counterintuitive, desperate times call for desperate measures, and if Atlanta wanted to keep both of its Cup dates, something had to be done.

Sunday night's race could be looked at as a referendum on that decision. If people show up, there remains a glimmer of hope that AMS will maintain its two dates.

Realistically, however, it probably doesn't matter if the track sells out. Bruton Smith needs a Cup date for his newly purchased Kentucky Speedway, and odds are the date will come from AMS.

What does remain in question is if Labor Day in Atlanta will become a new tradition, one where seats are filled? We'll start to find out Sunday night.

5. How will Erik Darnell do?

The 26-year-old makes his Sprint Cup debut, replacing Bobby Labonte in the No. 96 car.

The move to replace Labonte with Darnell is clearly a look into the possible future at Yates Racing. The organization, a partner of Roush Fenway Racing, hasn't set its lineup for 2010. Paul Menard will be in one car. The second driver still is not set.

Darnell won Jack Roush's "Gong Show" – a test of young drivers – back in 2005 and has spent his time since then driving for Roush in the Truck Series (where he has two wins). He's also competed in 10 Nationwide races for Roush this season.

"I have to go there and show that I'm able to do this and I'm capable of doing this in a Sprint Cup car – because this is where I want to be down the line," Darnell said Saturday. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't know that I have anything lined up next year yet on the Nationwide side or the Cup side or anything like that, so I think this is kind of my opportunity to go out there and show that I can run in these cars."

Darnell is not off to a good start. He clocked the slowest time in qualifying. Because he was already locked into the field based on owners points, Darnell will start 42nd.