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Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: October 20, 4:24 PM ET
Eliminations likely at Kansas

By Ricky Craven
ESPN

Editor's note: An explanation of Ricky's "Rule of 72" can be found here.

With the Chase for the Sprint Cup reaching the halfway point, several drivers find themselves in a compromising position. Drivers from fourth-place Clint Bowyer, who won the fifth race at Charlotte, all the way to Kevin Harvick in 10th place could be eliminated with a poor finish at Kansas.

There's plenty of risk for these drivers, but there's plenty of risk for all drivers this week. Kansas is a new track with a new surface, and with that comes unpredictability, as Denny Hamlin demonstrated on Friday by crashing during a testing session. Along with that, the obvious pitfalls of being a Sprint Cup Series driver -- flat tires, blown engines and running out of fuel late in the race -- are all examples of things that these seven drivers can't afford.

On the flip side, the top three drivers -- Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin -- have had strong enough starts to leave themselves a bit of wiggle room in these next few events. It shows the value of a strong start in the Chase.

Harvick and Jeff Gordon are two drivers who have backed themselves into a corner. Without a strong run Sunday, they will be eliminated by the Rule of 72.

Harvick has not posted a top-10 finish in the Chase or demonstrated the ability to run with the leaders. So in my opinion that makes it a matter of time before he's eliminated. Gordon had an impressive run going since finishing 35th at Chicago, placing in the top three in three straight races. But his 18th-place finish at Charlotte was the worst among the Chase drivers.

The same is true for Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. And the reality is that Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Bowyer could also go out with a finish in the 30s this weekend.

Bowyer saved his Chase chances with his win at Charlotte. His 23rd-place finish at Talladega was far and away his worst of the year, but had he made it through that last corner of the last lap at Talladega, he'd have top-10s throughout the first five races.

But I am of the position this is a three-horse race. As impressed as I have been with Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing, I'm not convinced that Bowyer can keep up with Johnson, Hamlin and Keselowski down the stretch.

The three drivers at the top of the standings have demonstrated speed week in and week out. Speed cures a lot of problems.

If you're able to execute the fundamentals of the sport and you have speed, you're a contender. If you don't have speed, then it depends on strategy, like fuel mileage, or taking two tires late in a race instead of four. These things might get you a win, but they aren't sustainable. They're not something you can depend on every week, like speed.

If you look at laps led through the five Chase races so far, it's Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin who are leading the Chase drivers. And they're relatively close, with Johnson at 281, Hamlin at 269 and Keselowski at 233. As we look forward, I think any one of these three drivers can win at any of the next three tracks -- Kansas, Martinsville and Texas.

Even though Keselowski had his worst finish in the Chase at Charlotte, finishing 11th, he made quite a statement. Had he not been short on fuel late, we'd be talking about three wins in five races -- he led the most laps and showed a lot of strength.

I expect Hamlin is going to back up his second-place at Charlotte with another top-5 this week, as long as the effects of his crash on Thursday don't interfere with his ability to race. Johnson, with the exception of Talladega, has been in top form in every Chase race and I expect that will continue at Kansas. And I am curious to see if Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe will continue to bring new race cars to the track, or lean back on some of their cars that have run well in past races.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.