The race to the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is on.
Saturday night's 400-miler at Kentucky Speedway begins a 10-race stretch that precedes the Sprint Cup Series playoffs. The Chase begins September 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Following Kentucky, the series will run at Daytona, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta before the regular season concludes on Sept. 8 at Richmond.
The top-10 in points after Richmond will qualify for the 12-driver Chase field. Positions 11 and 12 are wild cards, which go to the non-top-10 ranked drivers with the most wins, as long as they're ranked in the top-20 in points.
Right now, Brad Keselowski holds the 10th position in the rankings. Keselowski, with two wins so far this season, has an 11-point advantage over 11th-place Carl Edwards.
Last year, Edwards finished the season in a points tie with Tony Stewart, but Stewart won the series championship by virtue of his five wins -- all of them in the Chase -- compared to Edwards' one victory.
Edwards is hoping Kentucky is where he can return to his winning ways in the series. He has 19 career wins, but his last victory came in March 2011 at Las Vegas (49 races ago).
"(Kentucky) is a big race for us," Edwards said. "I had my first win in NASCAR there in the Truck Series in 2003. It is huge for me to be able to go back there and have the opportunity to run in the Cup Series and get a win there. We had one Nationwide win there as well, and I really like that place."
Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman are presently the top-two drivers in the wild card standings. Busch, who is 12th in points, and Newman, 13th, have one win each so far this season. Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne also have one victory apiece. Logano sits 15th in points and Kahne 17th.
"We're eligible for that wild card spot, but we know how vulnerable that spot can be, knowing anybody can rattle off two wins," said Busch, who won the April 28 race at Richmond. "We're ahead of the wild card race with only one win, but if Joey Logano or even a Ryan Newman or Kasey Kahne get another win, that bumps them up to the lead, and we'd be just barely hanging on by that last spot.
"We've got to get ourselves back into the top-10 where we're comfortable and we can try to win some more races to solidify our chances for the Chase."
Busch started on the pole and won last year's inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky. He held off David Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson during a two-lap shootout to the finish. Busch dominated most of the event by leading 125 laps. He took the lead for the final time after a round of green-flag pit stops concluded with 11 laps to go.
"We had a lot of excitement," Busch said of last year's race at Kentucky. "Coming down to the end, there were four or five restarts in a row where the lead swapped between me, Keselowski and Johnson. I know Reutimann even got up there at the end."
After winning last Sunday's race on the road course at Sonoma, CA, Clint Bowyer moved up to two positions in points to seventh. Bowyer is in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, and he's on track to becoming the first driver from MWR to qualify for the Chase.
"I didn't run good (at Kentucky) last year and have to turn it around and run good there," Bowyer said. "It's a long road to hoe before the Chase. Everybody is in this sport because of the Chase, and you can't win a championship without being a part of that elite group."
Bowyer's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., is ninth in the standings (30 points ahead of Edwards). Truex has been among the top-10 in points since the second race of the season at Phoenix.
Truex and Kevin Harvick are those drivers currently in the top-10 that have yet to win a race this year. Harvick is sixth in points.
Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Quaker State 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, June 30. Race: Quaker State 400. Site: Kentucky Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m.(ET). Laps: 267. Miles: 400.5. 2011 Winner: Kyle Busch. Television: TNT. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.