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Caraviello: Five spots, 12 drivers, and 10 races to decide it all

July 02, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Race to the Chase set up for plenty of action, intrigue as weeks count down

So much has been learned, and yet so much remains a mystery. Through this point in the Sprint Cup season we've established a clear group of frontrunners, discovered just how difficult it can be to climb in the standings under this revamped points system, and seen the massive impact a single race victory can have. We have a handful of drivers who appear locked into the championship hunt, and many more who appear to have no chance. But with 10 events still remaining until the Chase field is determined Sept. 10 at Richmond, the unknowns still loom like lapped traffic on a short track.

Chase contenders

DriverWinsTop-fivesTop-10sPos.
Clint Bowyer0388
Ryan Newman04710
Denny Hamlin13611
Brad Keselowski12322
Regan Smith11328
Tony Stewart01612
Greg Biffle01513
Mark Martin01514
Juan Montoya02516
A.J. Allmendinger01315
Marcos Ambrose03521

Twelve drivers will get in, but let's not kid ourselves -- right now, far fewer than 12 spots are actually available. Nobody's officially clinched anything, and they won't until the weeks leading up to that regular-season finale, but in reality those championship berths are getting snapped up quicker than items in a going-out-of-business sale. Saturday night's 400-miler at Daytona International Speedway begins the "Race to the Chase," the 10-event span that sets the stage for the real thing, and precious few seats truly remain on that express jet to NASCAR's big playoff.

Just five, if you really want to get down to it. As the sport makes its return trip to Daytona Beach, all logic and reason tells you that seven drivers are holding Chase tickets that only need to be punched. Carl Edwards has been atop the standings for 10 consecutive weeks and isn't going anywhere soon. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have multiple race victories and are solidly inside the top 10. Jeff Gordon is ninth, but with a pair of race wins that essentially guarantee him a spot under the wild card format. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch have one victory apiece and are trending in the right direction.

Barring catastrophic collapses of the kind drivers of that caliber rarely make -- seriously, it would essentially take plummeting to 21st or worse in points to prevent one of those guys from getting in -- the members of that elite septuplet can feel free to get in position for the Chase group photo taken every year after the Richmond race. Everyone else, though, still has work to be done. The extended game of musical chairs that will determine those final five Chase spots promises to be a frantic one, with a lot of frustrated drivers standing around after all the seats have been taken.

There's no definitive method of determining who's still in play here, given that anyone could thrust themselves into the middle of all this with a well-timed surprise race victory. As much as they've struggled this season, low-in-points drivers like Kasey Kahne, David Ragan and Martin Truex Jr. have shown flashes that make you think a Chase-spoiling trip to Victory Lane isn't out of the question. But going by what we know right now, and taking into account the drivers who have shown the most ability to run up front and contend for race wins and high finishes, the number of competitors most likely in contention for those final five spots stands at a dandy dozen.

The breakdown:

Inside, but not in

The members: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman. They're all in the top 10 in points, but on the low end. None of them have race victories, and their positions are far from secure.

The skinny: Earnhardt has been in the top 10 since way back at Fontana in March, and has shown the strength to get in. But he dropped four spots through damage not of his own making at Sonoma, the kind of thing that makes people nervous about a driver who has faded before. After a tough start Bowyer has regrouped, scoring top-10s in eight of his last 12 outings. Newman is heading in the opposite direction and has some issues on his team, as recent management changes at Stewart-Haas will attest.

The favorite: Earnhardt, clearly the best of this group all year. Bowyer should sneak in, too, as usual traipsing the knife's edge all the way up to Richmond.

The one-win club

The members: Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Regan Smith. They're all outside of the top 10, but each have a race victory that could be enough to earn a wild card berth. Only Hamlin, though, is in the top 20 in points.

The skinny: But for accident-incurred damage not of his fault at Sonoma, Hamlin would still be in the top 10. Either way, his victory at Michigan, and the way his No. 11 team has rallied from a brutal start, speak volumes about the program's resolve. Keselowski's win will go for naught if he can't crack the top 20, and he's 12 points away from doing that now. His position in 22nd place looks daunting until you realize that seven weeks ago, he was in 28th. Smith has made little ground since his Darlington win, and at this point making up 59 points is a lot to ask.

The favorite: Hamlin, who is a bigger championship threat than some drivers even in the top 10. Keselowski has also shown real progress in recent weeks, and that 12-point gap between him and 20th should be made up in due time.

Hanging on

The members: Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin. They're all outside of the top 10. None of them have race victories. And in a revamped points system that makes upward mobility more difficult, they're all having a tough time gaining ground.

The skinny: Here's where it gets dicey. Stewart's been jumping back and forth across the cut-off line for weeks, and although he could have won a couple of races earlier in the year and made this a moot point, he hasn't shown the consistency he had months ago. Biffle led plenty of laps at Charlotte and Michigan, but he and Martin have only one top-five apiece, and it's proving tough for them to leapfrog the other drivers ahead of them.

The favorite: If anyone can advance from this group, it's Stewart, who's just too good and been close too many times this season. Of note: His run-in with Brian Vickers at Sonoma cost him one position, which could be the difference in the end. And the Aug. 14 race at Watkins Glen International, where he's won five times, looms large. Unless he's thwarted by the ...

Road warriors

The members: Juan Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger. They're all former road-course racers who are well out of the top 10, but pinning their hopes on earning a victory -- and, potentially, a Chase wild card berth -- in that same race at Watkins Glen.

The skinny: Montoya said last weekend at Sonoma that he felt one win would be enough to get him into the Chase, based on how things have played out in years past. He's the defending champion of the Watkins Glen race, and certainly has the potential to pull off a repeat. Ambrose is still looking for his first Cup win, but he's scored Nationwide victories on the New York track in each of the past three years. Allmendinger's open-wheel background at least puts him in the conversation.

The favorite: Montoya, who's never finished worse than sixth at the Glen when he's been running at the end. But then again, by the time he gets there, he may very well have finally finished the job at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two weeks earlier -- which would throw the whole equation into tumult once again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.