With two races to go before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it's crunch time but not necessarily out of time for several drivers fighting for a playoff spot in NASCAR's premier series.
The top-three drivers in points -- Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- have already clinched a spot in the 12-driver field for the Chase. Matt Kenseth, who is currently fourth in points, has not officially locked down his position. However, Kenseth will punch his ticket into the show with a 40th-place finish or better in Sunday night's 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Right now, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are fifth through 10th in points, respectively. The top-10 positions for the Chase could mathematically be clinched at Atlanta. Any driver who leaves there 49 points ahead of 11th-place, which is currently occupied by Kasey Kahne, has earned a Chase spot before the series' regular-season-finale on Sept. 8 at Richmond.
Heading to Atlanta, the point separation between Stewart and Kahne is just 16. Stewart dropped from ninth to 10th in the standings following his 27th-place run at Bristol. Despite his recent decline in points, Stewart is almost assured a spot in the Chase by virtue of his three wins this season (Las Vegas, California and Daytona). Prior to Bristol, he finished 19th at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and 32nd at Michigan.
Stewart was in worse shape at this point last year. He had yet to win a race for the season and struggled to stay among the top-10 in points. But Stewart went on a tear during the Chase, winning five of the season's last 10 events and claiming his third series championship. He edged Carl Edwards for the title in a tiebreaker.
"I think it was worse last year, because we just hadn't won a race all season (up to Chicagoland), and if it wasn't the longest drought we've had, it was close to it," Stewart said. "To go that long without a win was pretty heart- breaking up to that point. We're looking forward to Atlanta and Richmond. We've got two really good tracks coming up before the Chase. I think it's a lot different feeling than it was last year at this time."
Stewart is coming off his clash with Kenseth at Bristol. While battling for the lead just after a restart, both drivers made contact and wrecked into the inside retaining wall along the frontstretch. Stewart retaliated at Kenseth by tossing his helmet at Kenseth's car when he was exiting off of pit road during the caution.
Stewart doesn't expect their feud to carryover into the remainder of the season, particularly during the Chase.
"This isn't the first time that anything has happened like this, and it's not the first time it's happened with Matt and I," Stewart said. "But it's never really lingered on past whatever has happened the past week. We still both have teams that are capable of going out and winning the championship, so you can either spend your time worrying about him, or you can spend your time worrying about how to win a championship. I find it more productive trying to figure out how to win a championship, and I'm pretty sure he's thinking the same way."
While Kahne occupies the first position in the wild card rankings due to his victories at Charlotte and New Hampshire, Kyle Busch moved up to the second and final wild card spot after his sixth-place finish at Bristol. Busch is 16 points ahead of Jeff Gordon in the rankings. His one win this season came in the spring race at Richmond.
"I would certainly like to think we can make the Chase, and we have the opportunity to do so, but that's all we can do," Busch said. "I can't sit here and tell you how much we deserve to be in the Chase or anything else. Atlanta hasn't been one of our best tracks recently, but this team is going to work hard this weekend to change that."
Gordon's first victory this season came in the Aug. 5 rain-shortened event at Pocono. He is the defending race winner at Atlanta.
"Obviously with what's going on in the Chase, (Atlanta) could be a crucial race for us," Gordon said. "We never go into any race banking on anything. We go there working hard to try and win the race. With so few changes, it's a track where I feel like it gives us a little bit more confidence that we can have a great weekend."
After ending last season in a points tie with Stewart, Edwards is in jeopardy of not making this year's Chase. Edwards is 12th in the point standings and has yet to win a race this season. It's been 57 races now since his last Sprint Cup victory, which came in March 2011 at Las Vegas.
In hopes of pulling off a victory at Bristol, Edwards gambled on fuel and tires late in the race. He held the lead until Hamlin passed him for the position with 39 laps remaining. Hamlin went on to take the checkered flag, while Edwards ran out fuel with a handful of laps to go and wound up finishing 22nd.
"We need to win," said Edwards, who sits seventh in the wild card rankings. "That's why you saw me stay out at Bristol and hang on to old tires, a low tank of fuel and try to hold the guys off, stay out front. Those are the kind of things we need to do if we don't have a dominant car."
Edwards' first career Sprint Cup victory came in March 2005 at Atlanta. He also won there later that year and again in Oct. 2008. If Edwards were to win this weekend at Atlanta, it would move him up to the second wild card spot.
Ryan Newman is fourth in the wild card rankings, followed by Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Each one of the those drivers has a win this year. After finishing 36th at Bristol due to a wreck, Newman fell from second to fourth in the wild card battle. He is now 19 points behind Busch.
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AdvoCare 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, September 2. Race: AdvoCare 500. Site: Atlanta Motor Speedway. Track: 1.54-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m.(ET). Laps: 325. Miles: 500.5. 2011 Winner: Jeff Gordon. Television: ESPN. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.