Wild-card “ownership” stayed the same after Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400, as Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman retained the two extra spots that will fill positions 11 and 12 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But much could change over the next three weeks, even as some drivers are poised to lock in Chase positions in Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in eastern Tennessee.
Technically, drivers in the 11th through 20th positions remain eligible for wild-card spots. Realistically, however, Kahne (with two wins) and drivers with one win (Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano) have the best shots.
Activity around the 10th position also got a little more interesting Sunday as Denny Hamlin’s 11th-place finish left him 33 points in front of Kahne, who is 11th in points.
Although 33 points is a relatively comfortable margin, it’s possible that Hamlin could fall out of the top 10 over the next three races. If Kahne (or another driver) replaces Hamlin in the top 10, that could create more drama. It’s difficult to imagine that Hamlin might miss the Chase, however, because he does have backup – two race wins.
It’s numerically possible – although quite unlikely – for 10 drivers to clinch Chase spots in Saturday’s race at Bristol.
Point leader Greg Biffle can clinch a Chase berth with a finish of 28th. Second-place Matt Kenseth can seal a bid with a finish of eighth, and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. can join the Chase field with a finish of sixth. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who came within five laps of a victory Sunday, can clinch with a race win.
Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Tony Stewart and Bowyer can clinch at least a wild-card berth Saturday. Keselowski and Stewart can clinch with a race win, while Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer can get in with a win, depending on the results of others.
The most prominent driver currently outside the Chase is Carl Edwards. And he’s way outside. Edwards is 12th in points but has no victories, and he likely needs wins in two of the three remaining races – Bristol, Atlanta, Richmond – before the Chase cutoff to become a championship-race participant.
It’s virtually certain that at least one and possible several “name” drivers will miss the Chase, with Edwards, Kyle Busch and Gordon still fighting to find spots.
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.