Chase to the cut

Sprint Cup's new wild-card system has some of NASCAR's elite charging hard for the win that gets them in. Illustration by Sean McCabe for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Halfway to the eighth running of the Chase for the Cup, it already feels like the wildest ride yet. In part that's because for the first time the final two playoff spots will go to the racers with the most victories among those ranked 11 to 20 in the standings. Most of the guys have it in them; the group vying for those pre-Sept. 18 checkereds is a fairly star-studded crew. But who is looking best to join the purty dozen?

Greg Biffle

Slow Start: Nothing gives a driver fits quite like a fast car that doesn't produce. Almost all the other Fords got out of the gates quickly, especially the one piloted by teammate and points leader Carl Edwards. Biffle, though, finished 20th or worse four times in the first six races.
Straightaway: Kansas, statistically his best track and the pre-Chase halfway point, was No. 16's fifth top-10. Now the series makes two stops in Michigan (June 19, Aug. 21), where he's won twice, and Bristol (Aug. 27), where he's been close, with four top-fours.

Dead End: But what if his team doesn't believe? Biffle extended with Roush in April, but some say he regrets it already. These days he feels like the fourth man on the totem pole beneath Edwards, Matt Kenseth and suddenly surging David Ragan.

Denny Hamlin

Slow Start: Last year's Cup runner-up managed just one top-10 in the first eight weeks, reinforcing the off-season chatter that he was still wobbly after fumbling the points lead in 2010's finale. His constant criticism of the Joe Gibbs Racing engine department has created a ton of tension in the FedEx pits, too.
Straightaway: Seven of his 16 career wins have been at upcoming tracks, including Pocono Raceway (Aug. 7), where he has collected eight top-sixes (four of them wins) in 10 career starts.
Dead End: Hamlin is a single point from Top 10 safety heading into the season's second half and refuses to rely on the winners-get-wild-card loophole. He's set his sights on passing the listing pair of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.

Mark Martin

Slow Start: During Hendrick Motorsports' winter shuffle, Martin drew Dale Jr.'s former crew chief Lance McGrew. The two are still tweaking, so they can be forgiven for thus far grabbing mostly forgettable 10th- to 20th-place finishes with underachieving quick cars or overachieving slow ones.
Straightaway: The stress of the annual free-for-all is old hat for this 52-year-old. He scrambled into the field in 2006 and just missed in 2010. Expect Martin's push to begin at New Hampshire (July 17) and Indy (July 31). He won at NHMS in '09 and was right there in the two previous Brickyards.
Dead End: Watkins Glen (Aug. 14) looks like a nice launching pad for a late surge. But don't let his three W's there fool you: The last one came in Clinton's first term. He's led seven laps since.

Jeff Gordon

Slow Start: Four-Time's piece of the Hendrick shake-up was the most dramatic. He moved out of the shop he shared with Jimmie Johnson to Martin's across the parking lot. It may as well have been across town: One year ago he was solidly in the Top 5; now he's hovering around 15.
Straightaway: Sifting through his career stats at pre-Chase tracks is useless; he's won at all of them. But over the past five seasons his best accrued performance by far has come at Infineon (June 26). Since '06, his average finish is fifth, with one win, in five starts.
Dead End: Did Gordon already get what he needs in a Phoenix win on Feb. 27? Not likely. "One won't be enough," he says. "Too many good racers are outside the Top 10. They'll all be throwing the kitchen sink by September."

Kasey Kahne

Slow Start: With any luck, Kahne's lame-duck, one-year ride with Red Bull already could have snatched two wins. But a mental lapse at Darlington, a blown engine at Dover and an empty fuel tank at Charlotte have the Hendrick-bound racer pulling an oh-fer.
Straightaway: NASCAR's mountains of loop data reveal the momentum Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have built entering the stretch. The No. 4 car ranks seventh in fastest laps, 10th in laps led.
Dead End: If Chase hopes don't pick up soon, driver and chief will have trouble concentrating on the now. They'll be too anxious to start their future at HMS, in Martin's car. In fact, if the old man continues to falter, don't be shocked if the kid grabs his seat before season's end.

Jeff Burton

Slow Start: If Kahne's luck is rotten, Burton's is downright decomposed. After making the Chase four of the past five times, the 19-year vet felt like he might have a shot at the elusive Cup. Instead, eight 20th-or-worse finishes have put him outside the Top 20.
Straightaway: The goal is no longer the Top 10. "Forget points, we gotta have wins," he says. Well, of his 21 career victories, seven have come at pre-Chase tracks, four at New Hampshire. The others -- Michigan, Bristol and Richmond (Sept. 10) -- are home to three of the final four races before the cutoff.
Dead End: The CAT Chevy can't win until it can get up front and stay there. Burton has led less than 1 percent of all laps run and is second-to-last among "closers," drivers who improve position in the last 10 percent of races.