Down to the wild-card nitty-gritty
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Six drivers are vying for one playoff spot with four races to go.
That's not the official, mathematically set scenario for making the Chase. But on close examination, it's the realistic situation at the moment.
This can change and probably will before the 10-race playoff begins. But for now, it's the dirty half-dozen trying to get that second wild-card spot to make the Chase.
All of them are in the same difficult position as the other drivers this weekend -- trying to figure out a tricky new tire on the super-fast and slippery fresh pavement at Michigan.
Not exactly ideal conditions when you are desperate for a victory. Here's how it looks for the Chase possibilities entering Sunday's race.
Kahne has two victories, so he's in good position to earn one of the two wild-card spots (which are based on victories) as the only driver outside the top 10 with more than one win.
What matters for Hamlin is his point differential over winless Carl Edwards, who is 12th in the standings. Edwards is 43 points behind Hamlin.
Unless Hamlin has a complete meltdown in the next four races, he isn't going to fall outside the top 10. And even if he did, he has two victories, so he likely would earn one of the wild-card berths.
So Hamlin is safe and Kahne probably is safe as well, if he stays out of trouble.
That leaves only one available spot in the playoff hunt. Ryan Newman holds it at the moment with one victory and the 13th spot in the standings, but five drivers (Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano) have a chance to take it from him.
"Just race to win," Newman said of his plans on keeping his Chase spot. "We're not going to sit here and say we are going to settle for fourth just because it will be a good points day for us. We're here to win and that's our focus. That's the bottom line."
All of the drivers chasing Newman also have one win this season except Edwards, but he can go to the top on the one-win crowd (and claim a provisional playoff spot) if he wins Sunday.
"We are here with our guns blazing," said Edwards, who starts on the front row next to pole winner Mark Martin. "We have a very fast race car and have been working very hard on it. The guys have pulled out all the stops. We don't feel there is a better racetrack on the circuit to come to when we need a win than Michigan. We've had a lot of success here."
Edwards needs to win and hope none of the one-win drivers wins again before the Chase. If one of those five guys wins Sunday, he would slip into the 12th playoff spot.
If none of them wins again before the Chase, then it's a battle for points. That probably would eliminate Ambrose and Logano. Both drivers are too far behind to gain enough points to beat out the other one-win guys.
Confused yet? So are the drivers sometimes, but none of them is thinking about earning the final spot on points. They are going all-out to win one or more of these four races -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
If one of them earns victory No. 2 Sunday, Edwards probably is done. He would need to win two of the last three regular-season races to have a chance at a playoff spot.
So what will happen? My guess is one of the guys with one victory will win again. It's unlikely Ambrose or Logano will be the one. Neither of them has won at the four remaining tracks before the Chase. Ambrose never has won on an oval track.
That leaves Gordon, Busch and Newman. Gordon has won at all four tracks. However, Atlanta (where he won last year) is the only one where he has a victory since 2002.
Gordon didn't sound thrilled about his chances here after qualifying 11th Friday.
"These are crazy conditions," Gordon said. "The track has just been strange all day. This tire just does not like to be pushed hard in an area where the track doesn't load the tire up, so you're on a fine line between driving in deep and not driving in deep enough.
"I feel like the track's lost a little bit of grip, so I feel now the old tire would've been just fine. But we don't know until we get into race pace and see the heat, and I'm sure there's still a chance of blistering. I don't know. It's hard to tell."
Busch, who starts on the inside of Row 12 Sunday, wasn't in Michigan for the last practice Saturday. He flew to Montreal to compete in the Nationwide race. David Reutimann scuffed a set of tires for Busch in Happy Hour, but he ran over something on the track and slightly damaged the right front fender on the No. 18 Toyota.
Some people were questioning Busch's decision to race in Montreal when he needs to focus on making the Chase, but Busch hasn't been saying anything this weekend.
If he doesn't make the Chase, last weekend's finish at Watkins Glen will haunt him forever. Busch had the race won on the final lap before sliding in oil and getting bumped from behind by Brad Keselowski. Busch spoke with NASCAR officials and appeared angry that NASCAR didn't throw a caution.
He didn't talk about it afterward and he hasn't spoken this weekend. But he did talk earlier this week in a news release from his team.
"I thought that maybe [the second victory] was going to be last weekend, but that wasn't meant to be," Busch said in the release. "We still have some good tracks coming up."
Despite the disappointment, all is well if he wins again before the Chase. And his chances look good. He has won at all four tracks, including earlier this year at Richmond.
Busch believes Gordon, not Newman, is the man he has to beat to earn the last wild-card spot.
"That's who I feel like we're really racing, the 24 car,'' Busch said in the news release. "If we pass him back in points, obviously that will get us back in the Chase. But he runs really well at Atlanta, and he also runs well at Bristol, too."
Things could change in the next month, but the dirty half-dozen all start this race vying for the same prize -- the last spot in the Chase.