Before talking about Sunday's Pennsylvania 500, it's worth mentioning next weekend's race at Watkins Glen International.
Because Watkins Glen is a road course, and for the likes of Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Reutimann – three drivers on the Chase bubble – that race will be about preservation. All three would be satisfied with a 15th-place finish, because it would mean they didn't give up a huge chunk of points with only four races to go before the Chase begins.
And offsetting any potential points loss next weekend can be accomplished this Sunday.
Pocono Raceway is a track where Biffle, Kenseth and Reutimann each can notch a top 10. All three spent most of the June race there running near the front, and they need to do that again. Not only would it keep or potentially enhance their position – they are 11th, 12th and 13th in the standings, respectively – but it also would alleviate any pressure on them to try to do more than they are capable of next weekend.
"It's really easy to lose ground in this deal, but it's really hard to make it back up," said Reutimann.
Here are five other storylines to watch for in Sunday's Pennsylvania 500:
1. Will Hendrick dominate – again?
All signs point to yes.
And even though Tony Stewart will start at the back of the field because a wreck in practice on Saturday forced him to a backup car, he's driven through the field before at Pocono.
In fact, he did it there in June and won.
"I screwed up," Stewart explained Saturday. "I got in too deep and got loose and couldn’t save it. … I tore up a really good race car today."
Primaries or backups, it hasn't really mattered for the Hendrick brigade. They seem to win in anything.
Hendrick cars have won 10 of the last 15 races, and once again they dominated the speed charts all weekend at Pocono.
"Hendrick obviously have been very strong this year and we're proud of that," said Jeff Gordon, who will now start on the front row next to Johnson.
2. Which Hendrick driver is the one to beat?
Carl Edwards said Friday that if Mark Martin makes the Chase, he will be the driver to beat. It's an interesting statement considering Johnson is the three-time defending Cup champion, while Stewart hasn't finished lower than seventh since May.
But there is no doubting Martin's speed. He has a season-high four victories in 2009 and has led a lap in 13 of 20 races this season, which is second only to Johnson.
And, as noted above, Martin was fastest in practice at Pocono and might have won his fifth pole of the season if it hadn't been for rain.
"I think [Jimmie Johnson's] got it backwards," Gordon said. "[Mark Martin is] definitely Superman. The guy is just unbelievable. He's always been impressive to me and I think to a lot of others with his talent and commitment to what he does. But you put him with a team at Hendrick like that No. 5 car and [crew chief] Alan Gustafson and that group, and it just shows just how talented he truly is."
3. What will Kyle do?
Kyle Busch has three wins but has finished in the top 10 just twice in the last two months, sliding him back to 14th in the standings – 82 points out of the Chase.
It will be difficult for Busch to rally to make the Chase if he gives up any more ground in the standings, which means this weekend he almost has to finish ahead of Biffle, Kenseth and Reutimann.
Busch clearly has the speed advantage over all but two or three drivers above him in the standings. But does he have the mental makeup to shake off a two-month slump at a time when the stakes couldn't be higher … and at a track where Busch has never had great results?
"That's what he needs to do," crew chief Steve Addington told SPEED. "He's the driver. He's the guy that everybody on this race team looks to and looks for that leadership role."
4. Are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew simpatico?
Before blowing his engine at Indianapolis, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running in the top 10. Not coincidentally, he was for the first time driving a car completely prepared by new crew chief Lance McGrew.
Though they weren't able to finish, it was a positive for a team that hasn't had many of those this season.
"We just have got to figure out a way to close," McGrew said. "That's happened to us a couple times already this year. I think we've put together a string of top-10 cars; we just have not had the string of top-10 finishes."
Sitting 22nd in the standings, 446 points behind Kenseth in 12th, Junior's playoff hopes are long gone. From here on out, it's all about 2010.
5. Will Denny Hamlin right the ship?
Hamlin is always a favorite whenever NASCAR hits a flat track – especially Pocono, where he swept both races in his brilliant 2006 rookie campaign. But in June, Hamlin didn't even make it around Pocono's 2½-mile triangle once before his fuel pump broke.
In a race where he was a favorite to win, Hamlin wound up 38th.
He was a driver worth watching last week at Indianapolis, another flat track, until a broken drive shaft relegated him to a 34th-place finish.
"We've got to finish races," Hamlin said Friday. "All season we would run top five, or we're in the garage 20 laps in with a mechanical failure of some sort. Reliability is No. 1 on our priority list at [Joe] Gibbs Racing. It goes ahead of speed."
- Mark Martin