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Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Making the Chase still a nail-biter for many drivers


I don't remember too many races to the Chase that were quite as exciting and uncertain as this one is shaping up to be.

Well, this is just the sixth year of the Chase, so there's not a whole lot of history there, but still, you'll be hard-pressed to find a closer race for the last few spots in the Chase.

And because I'm a researcher, and it's sort of my job, I'd like to clear things up for my loyal readers. Unmurky the Chase waters, if you will.

Ding, ding, ding. Ladies and gentlemen, as far as I know, it's a first in Internet history. I am now the first person to ever use the word "unmurky." But that's beside the point, unimpressive as it is.

Oh, let's just get on with a special off-week edition of the blog, where I give you some scenarios down the stretch, with just two races left. All these scenarios take into account that the drivers will start the Chase cutoff race at Richmond.

The in

Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are already in the field, nine titles between them, and nobody can take that away from them. Unless something unforeseen happens like a rules violation or some sort of drug scandal is revealed.

And we all know that never happens in NASCAR. Um … moving on.

Oh-so-close

Three drivers can clinch a Chase spot in Atlanta regardless of what those further down in the standings do, provided they simply start the race at Richmond.

The first is fourth-place Denny Hamlin. The dark-horse championship contender doesn't even need a top-10 at Atlanta, which is good since he has only two of those in eight career starts at the track. Hamlin needs to just finish 12th, or 13th if he leads a lap, to officially punch his Chase ticket.

One spot below him in the standings is Carl Edwards. Edwards was getting a lot of preseason love for his championship chances, but that's cooled as he's been unable to find Victory Lane in the Cup Series this season. Despite that, Edwards can wrap up another Chase berth by finishing fourth at Atlanta, or fifth if he leads a lap. He's won there three times in 10 starts, including his first career win.

The other driver who controls his own destiny at Atlanta is the driver who won the first Chase, Kurt Busch. Busch needs to do just slightly better than Edwards, finish third or better, or fourth if he leads a lap. That seems doable for Busch, who won the spring race at Atlanta in dominant fashion.

Not so clear

Here's where things get interesting. Oh, who am I kidding? They were always interesting.

Seventh to 12th in the points are separated by just 50 points and none are more than 84 points behind of 13th-place Kyle Busch. Six drivers -- Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth -- cannot clinch at Atlanta based on what they do themselves, but that doesn't mean they can't give themselves some breathing room.

Of these six, only Martin and Kahne have won at Atlanta. But Martin's wins came in 1991 and 1994, while Kahne won slightly more recently, in 2006.

Outside looking in

Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers have had their differences, but they find themselves in similar positions with two to go before the Chase field is set. Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann are a little farther back, but they, along with Vickers and Busch, could get back into the top 12 with a good run and some degree of fortune at Atlanta.

Those four are also in a position where if they win, they cannot be eliminated.

Meanwhile, things aren't looking so good for Jeff Burton and Marcos Ambrose. These drivers aren't eliminated quite yet, but they have some ground to make up, and have to do so in a hurry. Any driver 162 points or more behind 12th after Atlanta will be eliminated.

And I'd like to take this space at the bottom of the column to send my regards to drivers such as Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. They're among the drivers, everyone 19th or lower in points, who are officially eliminated from Chase contention. Maybe next year, fellas.

So, those are the numbers; I'll leave it at that for now. Who do you think is in or out? Leave your comment below, and it's time-stamped, so you can throw it in everybody's face if you were correct. I'll vouch for you.