Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
A lot is on the line for drivers vying to capture the 12 Chase spots
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend for Sunday's running of the AdvoCare 500, and a lot is on the line for drivers looking to make their way into the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Actually, there's a lot on the line for at least two drivers who are already all but a lock to get into the Chase.
It won't be advantageous to drop out of the top-10, but it wouldn't be the end of the world, either.
For a while now, Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has looked to be a shoe-in for one of the wild card spots with his two trips to victory lane. But another opportunity has opened up for Kahne -- the opportunity to move into the top-10 in the points standings sometime within the next two races so that he'll be on the receiving end of three extra bonus points for each of his two victories.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, has hit a snag as of late and fallen to 10th in points, despite is three wins. With Stewart's recent downfall, Kahne finds himself just 16 points away from a top-10 spot.
Both drivers will surely receive a wild card slot into the Chase, if nothing else, but both would like to head into NASCAR's post-season with bonus points inside the top-10. Stewart has three wins the season, so losing a position to Kahne could mean the difference between starting the Chase at the bottom of the heap or in a tie for the top spot with nine bonus points.
"Well, we're still going to be in the Chase," Stewart said when asked about possibly falling outside the top-10. "It won't be advantageous to drop out of the top-10, but it wouldn't be the end of the world, either. We didn't have those bonus points last year, and we were able to come back. It would be nice to have them, though. It's nine points that we'd have if we stay in the top-10, so we're going to do everything we can to keep those."
And those aren't the only Chase scenarios heading into Atlanta. While Kahne and Stewart battle for 10th and bonus points or 11th spot, several drivers head into a battle for that second wild card spot and final slot in the 12- man Chase championship field.
There are five drivers outside the top-10 but inside the top-20 with a single win and at least a glimmer of Chase hope -- Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Ryan Newman in the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford and Joey Logano in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"I'm trying my hardest to get a wild car spot in the Chase," Ambrose said. "It's been great to have two top-fives in two weeks, but we need another win to have a shot. My whole No. 9 team and everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports have been working really hard to give me the equipment I need to go out and win, and we just need to put ourselves in a position at the end of the race to do so."
For these drivers, both winning and points racing may be on the agenda. The "win and you’re in" mentality would work, getting any one of them a second win to top their aforementioned competitors. Points racing may also work, because if there's a five-way tie based on wins, the tie-breaker goes to the one of the bunch highest in points. By the way, that honor, right now, goes to Kyle Busch, who is 13th in points.
But there's another driver whose name should be thrown into the mix -- Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Sure, Edwards is winless through the first 24 races this year, but he's ahead of all five of the previously mentioned drivers outside the top-10 with a single win. If Edwards wins at Atlanta, or at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway next weekend and the other five don't make a second trip to victory lane the next couple of races, Edwards will swoop in and take the second wild card spot by virtue of the win and his points position. Unlike the other five, Edwards does have to win in the next couple of races to get in.
Needless to say, there's a lot on the line heading into Atlanta. Several drivers need wins, or at least strong finishes. Someone's 2012 season is depending on it.