The Sprint Cup world learned a very valuable lesson this past Sunday at Michigan: even those with a comfortable place in the standings can suffer a big points drop in just one race.
Jimmie Johnson, who has been No. 1 for 20 of the first 23 races, came into Michigan with a 75-point lead over second-ranked Clint Bowyer. After his engine blew up and left him with a 40th-place finish, Johnson left Michigan with just a 41-point edge over Bowyer heading into this Saturday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
That's a 34-point drop in just one race. And while Johnson is still locked in for one of the 10 automatic Chase berths, it clearly illustrated that as many as 12 drivers vying for eight remaining Chase spots are quite aware of what could potentially happen to their chances in the three remaining races before the 10-race playoffs begin.
NASCAR schedulers haven't made it easy. The last three races feature two of the smallest tracks on the circuit—Bristol on Saturday and Richmond in two weeks—sandwiched around one of the fastest 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit in Atlanta.
Even guys like Kyle Busch, currently ranked fifth, 107 points behind Johnson, are not safe. The younger Busch brother is only 43 points ahead of 10th-ranked Greg Biffle.
And even though Busch shares the lead for most wins among active drivers at Bristol (five), and even though he won Wednesday night's truck series race there, it's no guarantee that he will hold on to his fifth-place ranking after Saturday's race.
Drivers ranked sixth through 10th coming into Bristol are even less secure in their Chase hopes. Sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth is only 25 points ahead of former teammate Biffle. Dale Earnhardt Jr. not only remains winless (his last win was June 2012), he's slipped to seventh place and is just 16 points ahead of Biffle.
Defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski (eighth, four points out of 10th) and Kurt Busch (ninth, two points out of 10th) are also winless—but given their own past success at Bristol, have probably their best chance of reaching victory lane Saturday than they've had all season.
And then there are the guys on the outside looking in.
Kasey Kahne (11th) is just four points out of 10th place, but has two wins, all but assuring him one of the two wild-card berths. Martin Truex Jr. (12th) is 10 points behind Biffle and is temporarily in the lead for the last wild-card spot.
Michigan winner Joey Logano (13th) is just seven points behind Truex and 17 points behind Biffle. A strong run at Bristol could help push Logano all the more closer to his first-ever Chase berth, be it one of the 10 automatic berths or one of the two wild-card berths.
Former four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon is in a similar position as Keselowski, Earnhardt and Kurt Busch: he remains winless in 2013, is currently 14th, but is just 17 points behind Biffle.
Even though he slipped one spot to 15th after Michigan, Ryan Newman remains in contention for the Chase. As the lone representative of Stewart-Haas Racing with any chance of making the playoffs, Newman has a win in his favor, but needs to substantially close the 27-point deficit he currently has behind Biffle.
Last but not least, Jamie McMurray is 41 points behind Biffle, in 16th place. While still mathematically eligible to be the lone potential Chase representative for Chip Ganassi Racing, McMurray will have to pick up his short track game at Bristol in a big way if he holds out any hope of still making the playoffs.
All in all, this could be one of the most exciting run-ups to the Chase that we've ever seen in its 10-year history. And all of the drivers on either side of the Chase bubble know that their chances are much like the reputation of star athletes and entertainers: here today, gone tomorrow.
That's why the 500-lap event at the nearly half-mile Bristol track could wind up being the most important race this season for the 12 drivers who still have a shot at making the Chase.
Or missing it, too.
Here are some facts for you to consider about Saturday night's race:
Complete Preview of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway
Irwin Tools Night Race—Saturday, August 24
Location: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn.
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps)
Coverage of the race: Can be seen Saturday evening starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, and heard on Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Ch. 90
Green Flag drops: Shortly after 7:30 p.m. ET
Bristol Motor Speedway Facts
Last Five Winners: Kasey Kahne (March 2013), Denny Hamlin (August 2012), Brad Keselowski (March 2012 and August 2011) and Kyle Busch (March 2011)
Most Wins by Active Driver: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon (5 each)
Most Poles by Active Driver: Mark Martin (9)
Best Average Starting Position by Active Driver: Jeff Gordon (6.878)
Best Average Finishing Position by Active Driver: Kyle Busch (9.824)
Worst Average Finishing Position by Active Driver (five or more starts): Michael McDowell (36.833)
Most Laps Led by Active Driver: Jeff Gordon (2,713)
Most Laps Completed by Active Driver: Terry Labonte (26,026)
Most Lead Lap Finishes by Active Driver: Jeff Gordon (27 in 41 starts)
Most Top 10s by Active Driver: Terry Labonte (33 in 58 starts)
First Win at Track by Active Driver: Kurt Busch (3/24/2002), Elliott Sadler (3/25/2011)
First Pole at Track by Active Driver: Joey Logano (3/2010), Jeff Green (08/2001) and Steve Park (03/2000)
Most DNFs by Active Driver (four or more starts): Derrike Cope (13 in 27 starts)
Fewest DNFs by Active Driver (four or more starts): Jamie McMurray (0 in 21 starts)
Top 25 Driver Ratings at MIS (over last eight years, minimum of four starts)
1 18 Kyle Busch 103.0
2 24 Jeff Gordon 100.6
3 20 Matt Kenseth 99.9
4 2 Brad Keselowski 99.0
5 16 Greg Biffle 95.8
6 48 Jimmie Johnson 93.8
7 78 Kurt Busch 92.8
8 11 Denny Hamlin 90.8
9 29 Kevin Harvick 90.3
10 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 87.9
11 5 Kasey Kahne 86.8
12 39 Ryan Newman 86.7
13 99 Carl Edwards 86.5
14 5 Mark Martin 86.0
15 14 Tony Stewart 84.4
16 31 Jeff Burton 83.5
17 15 Clint Bowyer 82.6
18 56 Martin Truex Jr. 82.4
19 9 Marcos Ambrose 80.0
20 42 Juan Pablo Montoya 77.4
21 1 Jamie McMurray 76.2
22 22 Joey Logano 75.1
23 19 Elliott Sadler 74.7
24 83 David Reutimann 71.8
25 27 Paul Menard 71.4
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