LONG POND, Pa. – The battle lines have been drawn.
It essentially is a wild card battle, this race for 12th in points, but an exciting one nonetheless. And that battle, for the moment, is between two drivers who showed Sunday here at Pocono that they are legit contenders for a Chase berth.
Sure, either or both could fall out of contention, just as they could catch and pass drivers currently in front of them in points. But for now, it's the blue No. 2 and the red No. 8 fighting for spot No. 12.
Junior fired the opening salvo this weekend, benefiting from some weather-induced track condition changes to put his Budweiser Chevy on the pole at the expense of Busch's Miller Lite Dodge.
But there is no doubt that the latest round of this fight went to Busch. Nobody could touch him on Sunday.
The Pennsylvania 500 was his to lose from the first lap – and really, he would have dominated from the pole rather than the No. 2 spot if not for that rain delay.
Either way, in blowing away the rest of the field on Sunday for his third victory at this triangle-shaped circuit – Busch led a track-record 175 laps – and continuing a terrific streak that began last month at the Pepsi 400, Busch showed he's primed for a playoff run. Remember, this is a guy who proved in the first Chase that all you have to do is make the show; it doesn't matter whether you cruise in or limp. Once the green flies at New Hampshire, it's anyone's game.
And as of this moment, that 12th spot, by the narrowest of margins (seven points), belongs to Busch.
That the margin is only seven points is a testament to what Junior and the No. 8 team did here Sunday.
Junior struggled early with an ill-handing car and failed to lead even the first lap after starting up front. He later spun but survived, his team made a shock change and managed to keep Junior on the lead lap, then they used some strategy to get back near the front – all en route to finishing second and picking up some bonus points along the way for leading a few laps.
The No. 8 team did anything and everything necessary to keep Junior in this one, knowing Busch was going to win, realizing the best they could do, all they could to, to help offset Busch's huge performance was to get their guy out front and try to bring him home second.
"Kurt did what he had to do today and so did we," Earnhardt said.
And it all set up this neck-and-neck fight of the longneck-sponsored cars, whose drivers acknowledge how important it is to beat the other beers.
"I enjoy the battle of the beverages," Earnhardt said. "It matters when it comes to those guys in St. Louis (Anheuser-Busch). … It matters when you win and run good, but they'd rather you just outrun all the other beer cars."
"We stole that pole this weekend … we stole it from the Miller car. That's really cool."
It's no different for Busch.
"They say, 'great job on beating the red 8 car,' " Busch said, "or 'go beat that red 8 car.' "
On Sunday, that's what Busch did.
"This Busch made the best beer choice," Kurt Busch said to a couple of laughs – but just a couple. "Sorry, I thought that was pretty funny."
At that point, everyone laughed. After all, who outside of ESPN doesn't like beer humor?
Still, this goes far beyond a battle of beer sponsors. It's about a couple of guys who still have plenty to prove.
Busch already is a Cup champion, but there always are questions about his attitude, his maturity. And after a somewhat difficult first season with Penske Racing last year, Busch needed to make a run at the Chase this time around.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt, in his lame duck season with DEI, always will face the "he hasn't won a championship and doesn't deserve the hype" criticisms – that is, until he finally does win one. If he ever does.
There's something else nagging at them, too.
This battle for 12th also features two guys who were penalized 100 points each earlier this year. For Busch, it stemmed from nearly running over one of Tony Stewart's crew members on pit road. For Junior, it was an illegal part on his Car of Tomorrow wing.
"We cheated and we got caught," said Earnhardt, who clearly isn't worried about those specific points. "The cream's going to rise to the top. I think we're way better than (a bubble team)."
One was Busch's mistake. The other was the No. 8 team's. It's possible only one will be able to fully recover and make the Chase.
"(Those penalties) might be the case in point of why we're racing each other for this final spot," Busch said. "But I'm not going to look back on that 100 points and think that it's a deficit."
No, it might not come down to a head-to-head battle between Earnhardt and Busch, as both acknowledge that if they continue to run well, they could bring spots currently held by drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch into play.
But despite perfectly fair claims that they are gunning for spots better than 12th, that their destinies are in their own hands, that they are just focused on running well and really aren't worrying too much, both Busch and Earnhardt do realize they are facing down each other right now.
"That beer on Tuesday night might go down a little slower (for losing 12th to Busch)," Earnhardt said. "But I'll be fine.
"If I don't run second, man, we lose a lot of points to Kurt."
For Busch, about the only thing that could take some shine off his win was that Junior recovered to finish second – especially after Earnhardt spun.
"I was thinking right then and there, 'Wow, we're going to have a good points day.' Then we have a slower pit stop and the 8 is the guy we have to chase down for the lead."
Busch expects the battle to make the Chase to last all the way to Richmond. And he knows it just might turn out to be a battle with Earnhardt, but that is also could be with some other driver.
"Even though you win and the guy you're racing finishes second, that's just a tribute to the competition at this level," Busch said. "There's no time for resting and there's no time for looking back."
With just over a month to go until the Chase begins, Busch is right about not looking back. For if he does, he'll see that other beer car looming large in his rearview mirror.