With two races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, the most important figure in the fight for the Chase's two Wild Card spots could be Tony Stewart, the defending series champion. Yes, that's the same Tony Stewart who has been a virtual lock for the Chase since he left Daytona with his third win of the season and in sixth place in the points standings.
While Stewart is still in the top 10, he's 10th, 16 points ahead of Kasey Kahne in 11th thanks to finishes of 18th, 32nd and 27th over his last three races. Late in the running of Saturday night's race at Bristol — after Stewart had been taken out of contention thanks to his run-in with Matt Kenseth — the driver that stood the most to gain was winless Carl Edwards, who could have closed to within 15 points of Stewart for the final automatic Chase berth.
However, Edwards, who was trying to stretch his fuel to the end, ran out of gas with five laps to go and finished 22nd.
10. Tony Stewart, +16 from 11th (3 wins): Stewart is still in the Chase, either via the top 10 or thanks to those three wins even if he hasn't officially clinched yet. However, if Stewart gets in via the Wild Card, he starts the Chase tied for last without the virtue of his bonus points for those three wins. If he stays in the top 10, he could start first.
[Related: Tony Stewart flings helmet at Matt Kenseth]
11. Kasey Kahne, -16 from 10th (2 wins): All Kahne has to do right now is hold serve. If he can get around Stewart and into the top 10, he could start the Chase three points off the lead. The disastrous scenario for him is if Edwards sneaks into the top 10 while Stewart falls out and a driver with one win wins the next two races. Not likely.
12. Carl Edwards, -34 (0 wins): You have to admire the gumption of Edwards in going for the win while trying to stretch it on fuel mileage as it looked like Edwards' best shot to get into Chase contention. His bed already made, pitting from the race lead with less than 60 laps to go to ensure that the car would make it to the end wasn't the right move at the time, but it may have saved 10 points — hindsight being 20/20 and all that. Wins at Atlanta and Richmond likely get Edwards in. Can he do it?
13. Kyle Busch, -39 (1 win): Busch is still in the Chase right now, but he's living on a dangerous edge. Simply outpointing Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano seems simple enough, but if one of those four drivers wins and Busch doesn't, he's toast. Busch's stats at Richmond are insane, however. In 15 career races he's got four wins and 12 top fives. He still may be the best bet of the one win drivers to make it in.
14. Jeff Gordon, -55 (1 win): Gordon's third place finish Saturday night pushed him ahead of Ryan Newman and within striking distance of Busch. Plus, Gordon won last year's race at Atlanta. Repeating Sunday night puts the pressure squarely on Busch at Richmond.
15. Ryan Newman, -58 (1 win): Newman's chances took a huge hit when he made contact with nemesis Juan Pablo Montoya and slammed into the inside wall. His record at Atlanta and and Richmond is lesser than that of Busch and Gordon, and instead of being ahead of both of them with two races to go, he's now behind them.
16. Marcos Ambrose, -67 (1 win): If there were a few more races before the Chase, Ambrose could surpass all three of the one-win drivers ahead of him as he's recorded back-to-back fifth place finishes since winning at Watkins Glen. He showed some speed earlier in the season at Texas, the most similar track to Atlanta. If you believe in momentum, Ambrose is your guy. But it may be too little, too late.
18. Joey Logano, -108 (1 win): It's strictly win or go home time for Logano who bounced back with an eighth-place finish at Bristol after three finishes outside the top 30 in the past four races. In 12 combined Richmond and Atlanta starts, he's got just one top 10. But hey, his only top 10 at Pocono was his win there earlier this season. Never say never, but Logano's on a one-way street right now.
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