There isn't much mystery left in the "Chase to the Chase," and Clint Bowyer removed a little bit more of it by handily outrunning Mark Martin at Bristol on Sunday.
Of interest, Jamie McMurray did move to 13th place in the standings, 100 points back of Bowyer with his third-place finish in the IRWIN Tools Night Race. Ryan Newman also takes on the darkest of darkhorse roles in 15th place, 118 points behind the No. 33 (Martin has slipped to 14th, 101 points back of Bowyer).
If a miracle is going to occur, all eyes should be on McMurray, who is paying for an inconsistent season where marquee wins tend to alternate with finishes in the 20s or 30s.
McMurray's EGR teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, has traditionally been racy at Atlanta, and EGR as a whole is running as well as they have all season. Jamie should be able to benefit from Montoya's data, as Atlanta is considered the No. 42's strongest oval track. McMurray's strong run at Bristol could also portend a good finish at Richmond, a .75-mile bullring, in the final race before the Chase.
However, it would probably take significant bad luck on Bowyer's end (crash damage or mechanical failures) in two consecutive races for McMurray to cash in. One hundred points is just too much to make up in two races, at least not until Brian France implements my Chase upgrade.
Of course, none of this matters beyond the battle for 12th, because the points will be reset after Richmond based on wins during the season, but it's an interesting exercise to look at how it may all shake out.
Who will finish highest in the pre-Chase standings?
This is how I envision the standings after the Air Guard 400 at Richmond:
1. Kevin Harvick - He has virtually clinched this spot and even if he hadn't, he knows his way around Atlanta and Richmond, including several wins. Look for him to make a strong play for victories at both tracks to gain the critical bonus points for the Chase.
2. Jeff Gordon - Also a virtual lock in second place, it won't be surprising to see Gordon score a top-5 at Atlanta or at Richmond (where he finished second in the first race this year). He needs a win almost as badly as any driver not named Carl Edwards, but these aren't his top tracks, and he hasn't shown that he can get over the hump required to pay a visit to Victory Lane. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards will likely close the gap, but won't overtake Gordon for second.
3. Carl Edwards - Here's where it gets interesting. Edwards is extraordinary at Atlanta, and Kyle Busch is just as special at Richmond, where he has won two of the last three races. Edwards would have to make up 59 points on the No. 18 to nab this slot, and I think he'll do it by finishing in the top two at AMS and in the top three at RIR, where the younger Busch may very well enter as the favorite to win.
4. Kyle Busch - The second, third and fourth slots will be separated by less than 30 points, but Busch will fall just short due to Joe Gibbs' Racing's relative weakness on the 1.5 mile "cookie-cutter" tracks. Edwards will make up the ground in the penultimate race and you can expect the two to be amongst the leaders all night in the pre-Chase finale. Will "someone" exact any payback at the short track? Nah. Right?
5. Jeff Burton - It might be time to start flipping coins when it comes to the next five drivers, but Burton has been the most consistent and runs well on both track types. He disappointed mightily at Bristol, where he was expected to at least contend for the win, but his equipment and level head should give him two top-10s to end the "regular season."
6. Tony Stewart - Don't be fooled by his finish at Bristol due to a scrape with the wall and later on, significant crash damage. He was one of the strongest cars both in practice and on the racetrack, as he continues his usual summer surge. RIR is one of Stewart's better tracks, with him winning this race in 2002, finishing second to Kyle Busch in the 2009 spring race, and tallying numerous top-five results.
Stewart-Haas Racing has been inconsistent at the intermediate tracks, but Stewart finished 13th in the Spring and should be able to improve that by a few spots.
7. Matt Kenseth - Kenseth finished second at Atlanta this Spring and 13th at Richmond. He has failed to contend for wins all season, but has consistently landed top-10s. His 18-point cushion over Jimmie Johnson and 22-point cushion over Kurt Busch should prove enough not only to hold Johnson at bay, but leapfrog a fading Denny Hamlin.
8. Jimmie Johnson - It's extremely difficult to envision Johnson in 8th place at any time during the season, especially this late. However, he's proved that he's not invincible and when bad luck strikes, it often comes in clusters. Johnson's certainly talented enough to win at either track, but he won't be the favorite, as drivers like McMurray, Kyle Busch, and Edwards are trending upwards, just as J.J. is finding all kinds of ways to lose.
Still, expect Knaus to throw everything he's got at the No. 48, searching for bonus points, but that is just as likely to hurt Johnson as it is to help.
9. Kurt Busch - The elder Busch hasn't looked as strong lately as earlier in the season, but he's looking a bit healthier than Denny Hamlin at this point, and he did win at Atlanta earlier this year. Hamlin can't find consistency at the intermediate tracks of late, and he'll lose enough points at Atlanta that even a strong run at his home track of RIR won't be enough.
10. Denny Hamlin - How the mighty have fallen (okay, he's in fifth place right now, but my, how the mighty are projected to fall). Hamlin doesn't look like the title contender that won five races earlier in the year. He currently sits just 53 points ahead of 11th-place Greg Biffle due to his recent poor results. He has had mixed luck at Richmond, often taking a strong car to a less than satisfactory result. Don't expect a repeat of last year's victory, but more likely something resembling this Spring's 11th-place effort.
11. Greg Biffle - He should be strong at Atlanta (and comfortable enough to go for a winning setup), but the gap on either side of him in the standings has him more or less locked into 11th.
12. Clint Bowyer - He should be expected to go conservative on his setups and glide into the Chase with top-10s or top-15s. As strong as McMurray is running, it's not worth the risk to go for a victory at Atlanta. If he keeps it on the track, Bowyer should have little trouble keeping his stranglehold on the final position in the Chase.
For what it's worth, I'll take Jamie Mac to edge Edwards at Atlanta and Harvick to steal Richmond from Kyle Busch.
What is it worth exactly? Well, unfortunately, just 10 points for Harvick and some more pride for McMurray. Thanks for playing, Jamie.
You can read more of my articles on Yahoo! Sports NASCAR blog - From the Marbles, and follow me on Twitter @nathanmedic.