With only 12 spots available in the Chase for the Sprint Cup each season, there are bound to be a handful of superstars left out of the championship hunt every year. Especially when one team elevates itself—as Michael Waltrip Racing has done with Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer this year. Chase spots get harder and harder to come by each season.
This year, the list of names fighting for a wild-card spot reads like a who's who of the sport. Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and even Jeff Gordon find themselves on the outside of the top 10 in points looking in, battling for race wins in the final two weeks. Two should be enough to secure a wild-card spot, but only Kahne is so lucky.
Writing a piece like that requires me to pick two drivers to make it as Wild Cards. I'm saying Kahne maintains one spot, while a bit of luck these next two weeks propels Gordon into the second wild-card berth. That would leave the following drivers searching for the answers to what went wrong:
By now, we all know that the "second-place hangover" is a real thing. Denny Hamlin felt it in 2011 after losing the title in the final race of 2010, and Edwards is feeling it now after failing to take any race wins.
His best shot came Saturday night at Bristol, but poor fuel mileage judgment set him back to 22nd place in the final results. The No. 99 team has just been flat all season, and nothing seems to indicate a sudden change.
Maybe Rowdy needed all of that Nationwide and Camping World track time to stay up front after all. This year, Busch has seen a sharp decline in victories through 24 races (one versus four last year), while his average finish is down to 15.2, his second-worst mark with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch could've helped his chances by winning at Watkins Glen, but a last-lap spin in Bobby Labonte's oil ruined that. He's currently in, but the last time Busch's average finish was 15th or worse—2009—he also failed to make the Chase.
Newman's only win of the season came at Martinsville in April, and it was arguably a gift; when Clint Bowyer's aggressive first-turn move on a late-race restart (helped along by Newman) spun the dominant cars of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Since then, Newman has struggled. He failed to score another top-10 between Martinsville and Daytona, and although the team has scored six finishes of 11th or better in its past seven races, a 36th-place finish at Bristol dropped them to 15th in points and out of the second wild-card spot.
Ambrose has proved himself the best driver in the sport at Watkins Glen, taking wins there in each of the past two seasons while consistently inching up the Sprint Cup standings with Richard Petty Motorsports.
He's turned on the heat as of late, jumping from 20th in points through 12 races to 16th through 24, and has three consecutive top-five finishes. It'll take more than that to make it into the Chase, though. Ambrose has struggled at both Texas and Charlotte—Atlanta's sister tracks—and Richmond, posting a combined average finish of 24.7 this year.
Logano finally broke through for a "real" Sprint Cup win at Pocono in June (remember, his Loudon win in 2009 came due to pit strategy in the rain), but still appears in line to be replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Matt Kenseth at the end of the year. At 18th in points, Home Depot is likely running low on patience, and Logano seems destined to land on his feet at Penske Racing.
Logano's 17.8 average finish thus far is the second-best mark of his career, but that won't cut it as far as making the Chase goes. He must be wishing that he could have run for the Nationwide title this year, as his six wins in 15 starts lead the series.
There hasn't been much of anything going right for Burton for the second year in a row. The good news is that he's already matched last year's top fives with two. The bad news is he's 20th in points, exactly where he ended up last year.
Burton's average finish of 20.1 is his lowest since 1995, the year before his career broke out when he joined what was then simply known as Roush Racing. The key has been Burton's inability to stay on the lead lap; he already has 14 finishes off of the lead lap this year, compared to 13 all of last year.
To an extent, we all knew this was coming. Nobody in their right mind thought that Phoenix Racing was going to keep Kurt Busch in the Chase when they entered into a handshake agreement before the start of this season.
On the other hand, few probably thought that Busch wouldn't be able to elevate James Finch's equipment much beyond Landon Cassill's 2011 experience. Busch's average finish is 24.6 through 24 starts; Cassill's last year was in the mid-27s while driving for Phoenix (he also start-and-parked three times for Germain Racing to bring down his full-season number to 28.8).