As the Sprint Cup Series rounds the 10-race pole heading toward the finish line to the regular season, let's reset the field.
Only three drivers are virtual locks to make the Chase as the tour heads into Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson each have more than a 290-point cushion between themselves and Kasey Kahne in 13th.
But after the top three, it's wide open.
Kurt Busch, who sits in fourth, is just 170 points ahead of Kahne. Comfortable, yes. But locked in? Not yet, which means the final nine spots in the Chase are still up for grabs.
Sunday's race is crucial for Earnhardt if he has any chance to rally. Ten races is a lot of time, but he has 277 points to make up between himself in 20th and Juan Pablo Montoya in 12th. Earnhardt needs to make gains every week.
On the flip side, Kyle Busch can't afford to lose any more ground. He's in the midst of a string of four subpar finishes, which have shrunk his cushion over Kahne in 13th to a minuscule 48 points.
With qualifying being rained out Friday, Busch will start ninth.
And then there are the not-so-usual suspects who are trying to qualify for the Chase for the first time. Montoya and David Reutimann (14th, 40 points back) are still in the hunt. Neither has been this high in the standings this late in the season.
To help his quest for a berth in the Chase, Montoya declared last weekend that he would be points racing for the remainder of the regular season.
"It’s what this sport is all about," he reiterated Friday. "It’s all about making the Chase, and we’re doing everything in our power from the team to myself to the crew chief making the calls and being smart."
Here are five other storylines to watch for in Sunday's race:
1. Who will be "testing" for the Chase?
When the tour returns to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September, it will be to kick off the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup. With testing banned, and with an eye on the bigger prize, some teams will use this race as a virtual test session for the race in September.
"We'll experiment with some stuff and try to validate it for here so when we come back we have a read on whatever package that is," said Johnson, who, because he sits third in the standings, can afford to experiment a little. "We're not looking for the home run. We're just kind of making sure we've got it right."
Said teammate Gordon: "We are in a position in the points to be a little more risky in our setup, in our pit strategy. But the most important thing is getting the car really dialed in this weekend so that when we come back for the Chase, that we start it off right."
However, Stewart says he's not changing anything because, as he explains, going after wins and the 10-point bonus you get for each one entering the Chase is crucial.
"You do what got you here," Stewart said. "You're still trying to go out and get those 10 extra bonus points so you're trying to do the same things and you're trying to win each week. Those 10 points are valuable at the beginning of the Chase and you hope you don't have to count on them, but if that one extra win and you win by seven points, you know that the deciding factor was getting a win in the pre-season part of it. So you've got to treat it the same."
2. Will Denny Hamlin make it to the checkered flag?
If he does, expect Hamlin to be near or in the lead, because he is a flat-track master.
In six races at NHMS, Hamlin has never finished worse than 15th. But remember, the last time Hamlin headed to a flat track where he was the favorite (Pocono), he didn't make past Lap 1 before his car quit on him.
Hamlin is in a good spot in the standings, sitting seventh, but he's still winless in 2009. Getting to victory lane would serve a dual purpose: It would give him the 10 bonus points, as well as set him up well for the return to NHMS in September when the Chase begins.
3. Can Kahne keep it going?
Kasey Kahne's win last weekend at Sonoma was a stunner, even for him. But he and Richard Petty Motorsports will take it. Now, the question will be if they can capitalize on the victory and keep Kahne in the hunt for a berth in the Chase.
Kahne has had mixed results at the next two tracks on the schedule, NHMS and Daytona, but has been flat out awful at Chicagoland, where the tour will be in three weeks. Considering this and the crapshoot that always transpires at Daytona, this weekend's race is a must for Kahne if he's to build off of Sonoma.
"Making the Chase is what it is all about," Kahne said. "I feel like our Budweiser team is in a really good position right now and we have some good races coming up. We have had top-10 cars since Darlington and whether our finishes reflect that or not, we have been very competitive."
4. Can Smoke win in a backup, again?
Stewart smacked the wall during Friday's first practice session. He didn't do a lot of damage to his car, but enough that crew chief Darian Grubb quickly opted to go to the backup.
"I just got loose and once I got out of the groove I was staying right with it," Stewart explained. "I just needed another 50 feet to finish getting gathered up and sliding up. I just ran out of race track."
Stewart's crew was able to get the car back on the track for the last 15 minutes of practice, in which Stewart was actually faster than he was in his primary car. That may have been because of changing track conditions, but Stewart definitely wasn't slower.
Because the wreck happened prior to qualifying, he won't have to start at the back of the field. Instead, he starts on the pole, thanks to rain.
The last time Stewart went to a backup car was three weeks ago at Pocono Raceway, where he started in the back of the field … and won.
"I’m not sure we're in a situation we were in at Pocono where the second car is better than the first one, but I feel like this one is even to the first car,” Stewart said.
5. Will we see another first-time winner in '09?
Four of the top eight drivers in the standings still haven't been to victory lane this season. The group includes Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Hamlin. Newman, Biffle and Hamlin have each won at NHMS. Edwards finished third there last September.
"I got my first win here and after a long winless streak, got another one here, and I am on another long winless streak," said Newman, who hasn't won since last year's Daytona 500. "It would be nice to get another one here."
- New Hampshire Motor Speedway