Kyle Busch looked to be on the right track after posting a strong runner-up finish at the Brickyard 400.
By scoring his first Top Five since his lone win in 2012 at Richmond in April, Busch moved all the way up to 11th in the standings and appeared to have reversed his run of bad luck. He held the second Wild Card spot and with another win would have appeared to be all but a shoo-in for the Chase.
But everything came apart during a rainy day at Pocono on Sunday.
Busch's No. 18 Toyota developed brake problems and he blew a tire on Lap 19 and crashed into the wall in Turn 1. After a lengthy break for repairs, Busch eventually finished 33rd, 24 laps down. The result dropped Busch four spots in the standings to 15th.
Busch is well known for being a hot-and-cold driver, but few would have predicted the extent of his struggles in 2012. Sunday was his fifth finish of 30th or worse to go along with just six top-five and nine top-ten results. With seven finishes outside the top 15 in the last nine events, it's been nearly all cold for Busch lately. He's on track to post his lowest Top 10 total since 2009, which is incidentally the last time he missed the Chase.
If Busch wants to make the Chase for a third year in a row, he'll need to turn things around, and fast. Luckily, there are several tracks coming up before the Chase where Busch has multiple wins, including Bristol and Richmond, where he won earlier this year. And winning is exactly what Busch will have to do if he wants a spot in the postseason.
Kasey Kahne in 11th place is the only driver outside the Top 10 in points with multiple wins (two), so he holds the first Wild Card spot. Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman have one apiece and are currently tied for the second Wild Card spot at 12 points ahead of Busch, while fellow one-time winner and JGR teammate Joey Logano is sitting 24 points behind Busch.
Most likely, the final Chase spot will come down to which of these four drivers is able to win in the five races remaining before the Chase field is set.
It's worth mentioning that Carl Edwards, who is 12th in the standings but winless, could also steal the final Chase berth if he can get a win. However, that's not the likeliest scenario, given that it's been well over a year since the 2011 championship runner-up was last seen celebrating in Victory Lane. (Post-championship loss hangover, anyone? Apparently the Jimmie Johnson Curse is extending past his actual title run)
Given the uphill battle he faces, will Kyle Busch miss the Chase?
Based strictly on the chances of him winning vs. those he's fighting, the odds are actually in his favor. Busch has 17 victories since 2008, compared to a combined 11 for Gordon, Newman and Logano during that span.
But that doesn't take into account how poorly Busch has been running for the last few months. And for that reason, I don't expect to see the M&M's Toyota in this year's Chase field.
Newman and Logano haven't been running much better than Busch as of late (neither has Carl Edwards, for that matter), but Jeff Gordon has been showing tremendous Hendrick speed and finishing in the top five on a consistent basis. He could easily win at any of the five tracks left before the Chase, and I like his chances of doing so much more than I like Busch's.
For Joe Gibbs Racing, that means it's likely going to be a lonely Chase for Denny Hamlin, who will be the sole participant in NASCAR's postseason while teammates Busch and Logano watch from the sidelines.