- Ricky Craven
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Editor's note: For an explanation of the Rule of 72, click here.
Of the 13 drivers who started the Chase for the Sprint Cup in September, only five remain in contention with three races remaining.
Eight drivers have been mathematically eliminated thus far, having accumulated 72 or more points using my Rule of 72. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined the ranks of those eliminated with their finishes in Martinsville last week.
Of the five drivers still in contention, Kyle Busch is the most vulnerable. His 15th-place finish at Martinsville was only his second finish outside the top 10 in the Chase, but at 56 points in the Rule of 72, he's one poor finish from elimination. Busch should be looking forward to Texas this weekend, having won both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races there in the spring. If ever Kyle Busch needed a win, it's now.
Kevin Harvick seemed to struggle for track position all day long in Martinsville, but saved his best for last -- a trademark of the 37-year-old driver -- and finished sixth. Harvick has never won at Texas in the Sprint Cup series, but among active drivers, he has the fourth-best average finish there.
No driver helped himself more Sunday in Virginia than Jeff Gordon, who earned his first win of 2013 and the 88th of his career. With the win, Gordon totals 50 in the Rule of 72 and trails leaders Jimmie Jonson and Matt Kenseth by 27 points in the standings. Gordon is a former winner at Texas and my early pick to make it two wins in a row.
For Busch, Harvick and Gordon, a finish of 24th or worse would eliminate them from contention for the title, according to my Rule of 72. All three need to swing for the fence this weekend.
Tied for first place in the championship standings, Johnson and Kenseth have had productive and consistent Chase runs so far. But neither can afford to allow the other to pull ahead. Both drivers have won at Texas, so expect both to be among the contenders.
I expect the race in Texas to be among the best of the year. Drivers like having options, and the abrasive surface will make for more passing, as it encourages drivers toward a higher lane through the turns to preserve tire wear.
Texas has become what Darlington used to be, or what Atlanta is now: a tire-management race track. The worn track surface challenges drivers not only to go fast, but to balance aggression with tire preservation. You will see this from the driver who has the ability to manage the accelerator best on long green-flag runs. That is how Jeff Gordon prevailed Sunday, and although the Texas track is roughly a mile longer than Martinsville Speedway, a driver will need the same set of skills to end the day in Victory Lane.
So with 70 percent of the Chase complete, it seems that justice is being served. The two winningest drivers of the 2013 season, Johnson and Kenseth, sit atop the Championship, tied in points. Unless they both falter, the championship will be won by one of them.
I have competed against both drivers and I would not bet against either. With only three races remaining, it is difficult to find a meaningful reason to pick one over the other. We can all look forward to an epic battle to decide the championship.
Of the 13 drivers who started the Chase for the Sprint Cup in September, only five remain in contention with three races remaining, according to Ricky Craven.