HAMPTON, Ga. - And now we're down to it. The AdvoCare 500 in Atlanta on Sunday night saw Denny Hamlin stamp himself as a legitimate, and possibly the favorite, Cup contender, and five drivers formally clinched their spot in the Chase. But the most interesting battles are taking place a few notches down in the standings.
With just one race left in the NASCAR regular season, six drivers still have a mathematical chance at securing the final wild card spot to lock themselves into the 2012 Chase. And no matter what happens, at least two of the sport's biggest stars will be left on the outside looking in at this year's Chase.
So here's how it shakes out heading into Richmond on Saturday night. Nine drivers have punched their ticket into the top 10 of the Chase: Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. They're in, it's done, they've got their celebratory yellow baseball caps.
Tony Stewart sits in 10th position, and he's in the Chase no matter what by virtue of his three wins. But he's only 18 points ahead of Kasey Kahne in 11th and 23 ahead of Kyle Busch in 12th, so it's not inconceivable he could fall out of the top 10. If that happened, Stewart would lose the bonus points from his wins.
Kahne, with two wins, is also guaranteed, at a minimum, a wild card spot; no other driver in the hunt has more than one win, and obviously only one driver is going to get a win in Richmond.
So that leaves us with the final wild card spot, and here are your challengers, along with what they need to win. Of note: the tiebreaker is the number of second-place finishes, so we've noted that with each driver:
Kyle Busch: The near-prohibitive favorite. At Richmond, he's got four wins, 12 top 5s and 13 top 10s in 15 stars. All he needs to do is finish no worse than 12 points behind Gordon to clinch without winning a second race. Tiebreaker: three second-place finishes.
Jeff Gordon: He's got his work cut out. He's 12 points behind Busch, and considering Busch's strength at Richmond, Gordon basically needs to win there. In 39 races, he has two wins, 15 top 5s and 24 top 10s. Tiebreaker: one second-place finish.
Carl Edwards: Even a win doesn't help much now. Edwards is the lone remaining driver with any kind of chance without a win, and he's 26 points behind Busch. He needs to win, of course, but he also needs for Busch and Gordon to have bad days. Edwards has no wins in 16 Richmond starts. Telling statistic: Edwards hasn't finished higher than 5th all season, and that finish came way back in Fontana. Tiebreaker: zero second-place finishes.
Marcos Ambrose: A win would vault him over Busch, as would a catastrophic finish by both Busch and Gordon. Ambrose is 40 points back of Busch, and would basically need Gordon and Busch to take each other out on the pace lap to have a prayer of getting into the Chase without a win. Ambrose has seven starts at Richmond, with no wins. Tiebreaker: zero second-place finishes.
Ryan Newman: A rocky late finish to the season has all but doomed Newman's chances. He'll need a win to leapfrog everyone and get into the Chase. He's 49 points behind Busch, more than a full race with bonus points. Newman has one win in 21 Richmond starts. Tiebreaker: Irrelevant.
Joey Logano: The fact that Logano is still even in the conversation at this point in the season is fairly impressive. But he's 83 points behind Busch, so he'll need a win and nothing else. He has only one top 5 in seven starts at Richmond. Tiebreaker: Irrelevant.
The odds strongly favor Busch and Gordon battling it out for the final spot, and in that battle Busch has a decided edge. But as we've seen all season, engine problems and unexpected wrecks can dog even the finest drivers at any moment. A short track like Richmond has all kinds of perils, and this Chase could come down to the final laps of the race. As it should.
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