Kyle Busch won two weeks ago at Bristol.
We're now two-thirds of the way through the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. You all know what that means—there are only 12 races left, the majority of which comprise the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's version of "playoffs."
The Labor Day weekend event at Atlanta marks the beginning of a 12-week uninterrupted stretch to the end of the season. With an off weekend between that race and Bristol, it's safe to say that some of the perceived momentum in the top teams has been frozen.
But just because the teams have received a one-week break, doesn't necessarily mean that those on hot streaks are going to be iced out at Atlanta. Without further ado, the top drivers and championship contenders heading into this weekend's Emory Healthcare 500, and the final third of the season:
"Happy" has every reason to be living up to his nickname right now. The points leader, by a whopping 279 markers over Jeff Gordon, scored the fourth most points out of any driver over the past three races, with 441. The victory at Michigan, combined with solid if not spectacular finishes at Watkins Glen and Bristol, allowed him to gain 30 points a race over Gordon. (For the record, that's the difference between both ends of the top five.)
I know, I know. I've been high on Edwards all year, and he hasn't done jack. But the past three races, he managed to outscore everybody in points but Juan Pablo Montoya. The No. 99 team has begun to find its stride as of late. Atlanta's been a fantastic track for him in the past. He's found his way up to fourth in points. I swear, it's possible for them to turn this around. If this (relatively) crappy year has them in FOURTH right now...
Kyle's good, and we all know it. Dude's four for four in his past four NASCAR races. That's absurd. That's incredible. That's un-freaking-precedented, at least insofar as sweeping all three major series at one track in one weekend goes. The only question is whether or not the No. 18 team will be this poised and focused in the Chase as well as the regular season.
Bristol wasn't a great race for Smoke, but hey, you can't run well at 'em all. It was only his second finish outside the top 15 since Darlington, and let's be honest, Daytona (25th) is a crapshoot anyway. But like Edwards, Smoke does need to find a way to get to the winner's circle. It doesn't matter if you finish second every weekend if the guy leading you in points is the guy beating you.
Remember how trendy a title pick Hamlin was at the beginning of the season? Me too. Then the past nine races happened (one top five, three top-10s, four finishes of 24th or worse). How quickly things can change, even when you've got the most wins of anybody (five) on NASCAR's top circuit.
It's been a quiet 2010 for Kenseth, with only five top fives, 10 top-10s, and no wins to speak of yet. But buoyed by a very strong early season (one point out of the lead through five races) and a lot of top-15 finishes, Kenseth actually has the fourth best average finish of any driver on the circuit. No, it's not the hop or trendy way to stay up front, but it sure worked seven years ago.
Though 11th in points and an outside shot at getting bumped from the Chase (provided he takes a couple personal days), Da Biff's been relatively strong these past five weeks. In those five races, he scored 763 points, fewer than only Edwards (768) and Harvick (776) in that time span. Remember his 2008 charge to a near-Chase title? He could be that spoiler driver again this year.
Second in points with no wins since the spring Texas race last year? Let's hope that Ella's artistry helps Gordon out at Atlanta. It would make for a funky story if Gordon managed to win the title without winning a race, and make up for 2007, when he got absolutely robbed of a title in one of his best career seasons, but the winless drought is getting almost as bad as Edwards'.
The Blue Deuce has sort of disappeared recently. But hey, in the Chase means in the Chase. He could very easily do this year what Juan Montoya did last year, Greg Biffle did in 2008, Clint Bowyer did before that...
He lost four spots in the points after Bristol. Critics are saying the No. 48 team is weaker than they've been in the past five years. But then again, remember that with his five wins, Johnson will start atop the Chase standings (as they currently run). They also kick into gear right around this part of the season every year.
If they win a fifth consecutive Chase, can we start calling Jimmie Johnson "Death" and Chad Knaus "Taxes"? They're about as sure of a bet.
...Jeff Burton is SEVENTH in points?!
Winning the Daytona 500 is generally a harbinger of Chase doom as of late—just ask Matt Kenseth or Ryan Newman. But Jamie Mac has a chance at unseating Clint Bowyer for the final spot. I think he can do it.
The No. 1 has been streaky for sure, but they've made the right calls under pressure, and that's what counts right now. McMurray's been one of the top drivers the past few weeks, maintaining a 10.4 average finish the past five races. Clint Bowyer's only had a 13.6 in that time span. There's not enough time left in the regular season to bank on that helping him—he's going to need some help—but Earnhardt Ganassi has been fantastic as of late, so they can certainly do themselves some favors.
Sorry, dude. I just have a feeling about that No. 1 car. Cool Hamburger Helper scheme, though.
Bowyer has three more top-10s than McMurray, but three fewer top fives, and most telling of all, two fewer wins. Teammate Jeff Burton hasn't found the winner's circle yet either, but look at what Kevin Harvick's been doing in the same equipment.
The past three weeks have killed all but the brightest of hopes this team had for a repeat Chase appearance. You want in the top 12, you gotta do better than 19th. End of story.
No, he won't make the Chase. But dude, kudos for being the only driver to score top-10s in each of the past three races, as well as recovering magnificently from the Pocono and Indianapolis debacles.
It's too bad that wrecking at Michigan also wrecked this team's Chase hopes. But, hey... it happens. I mean, it's not as if they've had a top five finish since the win at Phoenix anyway...
A generally consistent past ten races, marred only by a Loudon engine failure after leading 110 laps. Sadly, that's the closest he's been to the front for the rest of the year. If this is the best team Richard Petty Motorsports has to offer, I fear for a 2011 spent without them.
Not gonna lie... kind of forgot The Franchise was still Cup racing until Bristol. (I happened to be out of the house on the night of the Chicago race.)
If only Michael Waltrip Racing could put together that kind of car more than a few weekends a year, this team would be winning races in the Chase and challenging for titles. They've shown us all flashes of brilliance. But like most pop stars and political pundits, they're only flashes at this point.
Um... No hope at winning a championship. No luck at Montreal, not enough at Watkins Glen. Hopefully he and RPM will combine to do better in 2011. Until then... patience.
So when B/R NASCAR editor Adam Hirshfield asked me to do this piece, he wanted 20 drivers in it. I got through the first 15 of this list and realized that almost nobody beyond that point had even a remote shot at a title.
I started thinking. Who's absent from this list? Who else can I add? When was the last time 20 drivers had a remote shot at the Chase anyway?
Finally, after about an hour of work, it hit me.
So in a desperate ploy to gain extra readers by tagging him in the article, and bringing this slideshow to a merciful end, I offer you Dale Earnhardt Jr., currently 18th in points. Junior Nation, get on your feet!