With only 10 races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, the biggest story surrounding the point race is the list of drivers who would miss post-season fun if the standings stay the same.
The names are big ones.
Carl Edwards. Kasey Kahne. Jeff Gordon.
And two other big names – Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman – are barely in.
Summer is going to be busy and nail-biting for some top contenders.
Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway will begin what the NASCAR public relations machine has labeled the Race to the Chase, the 10-race summer stretch that will finalize the 12-driver field for the championship run. The top 10 drivers in points, plus two wild-card entries (other drivers in the points top 20 with the most wins), will race for the Sprint Cup championship beginning Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The most obvious absence from the championship-competition list – as it now stands – is Edwards, who sits 11th in points and is winless this season. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the title last season but lost the tiebreaker – number of wins.
Remarkably, Edwards has not won since March 2011, and he has led laps in only two races this season – 206 laps in a 10th-place finish at Richmond and one lap in a ninth-place run at Kansas.
Edwards hasn’t finished in the top five since the fifth race of the season, at Auto Club Speedway, a tough streak of 11 races. He was a total non-factor Sunday at Sonoma, finishing 21st.
Gordon continues his wacky season of running well but getting nowhere. He was a demon in practice at Sonoma and qualified a close second to pole winner Marcos Ambrose but led only 13 laps and finished sixth, leaving his top-five total for the year at only one. He’s 18th in points.
Gordon, Edwards, Kevin Harvick (sixth in points) and Kurt Busch (27th) are among drivers without a win this year.
Kahne finished 14th Sunday and lost a spot in the standings to 17th. He rallied in the spring with seven straight top-nine finishes but hasn’t been in the top 10 in the past three races, damaging his chances to get in the Chase.
Last year, nine of the drivers in the top 10 at 16 races into the season advanced to the Chase. The one who failed was Clint Bowyer, who now sits seventh in points after scoring an upset victory Sunday at Sonoma.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.