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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- When you really take a close look at it, the race to the Chase basically comes down to eight drivers vying for the final three spots before the playoff begins. Six others still have a sliver of hope.
I will explain as we go, but this battle will be interesting. For the first time, a driver ranked 22nd in the standings, four races before the Chase starts, has a chance to make the Sprint Cup playoff.
Granted it's not a good chance, but it's a chance. All Marcos Ambrose, one of the eight drivers with a decent shot, has to do is follow up his win at Watkins Glen with a victory in at least one of the next four races -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta or Richmond.
Ambrose never has won on an oval track, but he has a lot of incentive to take some chances and get that oval win now.
"The changes NASCAR has put in this year for the Chase format have been big winners for the drivers and the fans," Ambrose said Wednesday. "I know if I go out in the last four races [before the Chase starts] and win another event, I've got a chance to make it.
"This time last year, I was pretty much done. I was only racing for pride, but there is a lot at stake now. Drivers are building to a frenzy here toward the end.''
The race on the 2-mile oval at Michigan on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) begins the four-race countdown to try to earn a spot in the 12-driver Chase. The top 10 spots are based on points; the last two -- for the first time -- are based on victories.
The top eight guys appear to be safe, down to Ryan Newman in the eighth spot. Newman is 52 points (more than a driver can make up in one event) ahead of 11th-place Clint Bowyer.
|Clint Bowyer, who is 11th in the standings, needs to make up some points on 10th place or win at least one of the next four races.|
Brad Keselowski is 14th in the standings, but he is the only driver outside the top 10 with two victories. He's in good shape.
So let's take a quick look at some of the other Chase contenders, starting with the three drivers at the bottom end of the cutoff at the moment:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He's ninth in the standings and 36 points ahead of Bowyer. Each point is worth one position on the track, so that's a significant cushion.
But I wouldn't say Junior is safe. One crash or one blown engine could drop him out of the top 10, and he hasn't won a race. Six of his 18 career victories have come at the four upcoming tracks.
Tony Stewart: He's on the bubble in 10th, but leads Bowyer by 25 points. Stewart also is winless this season. However, Stewart has won at all four tracks (eight of his 39 career victories) left before the Chase.
"I don't want to have to rely on the wild card," Stewart said. "I just want to keep getting points, and if we can stay in the top 10, then we don't have to worry about that wild-card spot.
"We're just going to try and be consistent and keep doing what we're doing. I think our consistency here lately has been much, much better, even if the results haven't always showed it. If we can keep doing what we're doing, I think we'll be all right."
Denny Hamlin: He ranks 12th in the standings but holds down the 12th Chase spot with one victory. It's a precarious position. If Bowyer wins Sunday, Hamlin would be outside the Chase cutoff.
Hamlin won at Michigan in June and could secure his spot by doing it again. But Hamlin's No. 11 team made a somewhat controversial decision to switch from the Joe Gibbs Racing engine program to a Toyota Racing Development engine this weekend. JGR and TRD are merging engine programs in 2012, but this move by Hamlin's team still is a surprise.
TRD is winless this season. JGR engines have more power, but they also have reliability issues, experiencing several engine failures this season. Hamlin can't afford an engine failure now, so he is taking the conservative approach.
Three other drivers with one victory this season -- Paul Menard, Ambrose and David Ragan -- still have a shot at the Chase.
Two others do not. Regan Smith won at Darlington, but he's 25th, 82 points outside of 20th, the cutoff to earn a wild-card spot.
Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne is a part-time Cup driver who isn't competing for the title this year.
So let's talk about the three winners still in the hunt:
Menard: None of these guys will make it on points. Menard is 15th, but he's 60 points behind Stewart. He has to win again, as do Ambrose and Ragan. But Menard is the only one of the three who is inside the top 20 right now.
Can Menard win again, following up his surprising victory in the Brickyard 400? He was fourth in Michigan in June and fifth at Bristol in March.
Ambrose: He's only one point below Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin Truex Jr., who are tied for 20th, so Ambrose just needs to win. He finished fifth at Richmond in September 2010.
Ragan: He 23rd but is only five points outside of 20th. His first career victory came at Daytona in July. He finished fourth at Richmond in April.
Two winless drivers in 2011 -- Bowyer and Greg Biffle -- still are high enough in the standings that one victory might get them in the Chase. Tiebreakers for a wild-card spot are based on the points standings.
Bowyer: For now, one win and he's in. Bowyer, who won at Richmond in 2008, also could catch Stewart or Earnhardt for a top-10 spot.
Biffle: He's 13th, only 16 points behind Hamlin. Biffle has two career victories at Michigan.
The six drivers ranked 16th to 20th -- AJ Allmendinger, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Montoya and Truex (sharing 20th) -- all are winless.
They all are long shots because one victory probably won't be enough to get a wild-card spot. But they still have hope, and, in this system, more drivers than ever have a realistic shot of making the Chase.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.