NASCAR Chase for the Championship: Movers and Shakers After Pure Michigan 400

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIJanuary 23, 2017

For the second consecutive race, the projected field for the 2011 Chase for the Championship didn't change. However, that doesn't mean there wasn't any movement within and just outside the Chase field.

First and foremost, Kyle Busch is setting himself up to be the championship leader when the Chase begins at Chicagoland next month. With his Michigan win, Busch moved into sole possession of the points lead, 10 markers above Jimmie Johnson in second place. More significantly, Busch guaranteed himself at least a wild card spot in the Chase. And at Bristol, he can guarantee himself the top overall seed in the Chase with a victory.

If Busch can win his third consecutive Cup race at Bristol—and I wouldn't bet against him doing it—he would guarantee a spot in the top 10 after Richmond, as well as at least a tie for the most wins in the regular season. Busch currently has four 2011 victories, while no other driver has more than three.

Carl Edwards, on the other hand, has fallen all the way to fourth place in the standings. At Michigan, he was forced to spend significant time in the garage and finished in 36th—29 laps behind the leaders. Edwards is technically tied with Kevin Harvick at 39 points behind current points leader Busch, but has just one victory this season to Harvick's three.

The two wild card positions were unchanged after Michigan's race, but Brad Keselowski shored up his bid for the first wild card while Denny Hamlin saw his advantage for the second wild card erode for the second consecutive week.

Keselowski continued his recent hot streak by finishing a strong third at Michigan, hot on the heels of his runner-up effort at Watkins Glen last Sunday and his win at Pocono the week prior to that. In the last six weeks, Keselowski has scored five top-10s, vaulting him to a career-high 12th in the standings. With two victories on the year, he is firmly in command of the first wild card for the Chase.

Meanwhile, wild card contender Denny Hamlin had a dismal race for the second consecutive week. He experienced electrical problems and finished 35th, dropping him from 12th to 14th in the points. Although Hamlin is still in position to earn the second wild card slot for the Chase, fellow 2011 race winners Paul Menard and David Ragan are lurking just 18 and 31 points behind him, respectively.

Menard had an opportunity for more, but he still made up nine points on Hamlin with a 26th-place finish. Ragan did better, making up significant ground with a 12th-place run, but his best bet to make the Chase might be winning a second race.

On the Chase bubble fight to stay in the top 10 in the standings, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished a decent 14th while Tony Stewart came home a strong ninth. The two are winless and sitting precariously at ninth and tenth in the standings, clinging to a Chase berth and hanging on to their spots in the top 10.

11th-place Clint Bowyer is the only driver with a realistic shot at catching Earnhardt Jr. or Stewart and moving into the top 10 before the Chase begins. He finished seventh at Michigan to move within 24 points of Stewart and 30 of Earnhardt Jr.

Bowyer has three races left in the regular season to catch one of those drivers if he wants to earn a spot in the Chase. Alternatively, he could win one of the three races and earn a position in the Chase as a wild card, provided he remains ahead of Denny Hamlin in the standings.

Like Bowyer, Greg Biffle is ahead of Hamlin in the standings and could take away Hamlin's wild card spot by scoring a victory. In addition, A.J. Allmendinger (three points behind Hamlin), Mark Martin (eight points behind), Kasey Kahne (12 points back) and even Joey Logano (25 points behind) are within striking distance of Hamlin for the second wild card spot. To claim a Chase berth, these drivers would need to earn a victory and also pass Hamlin in the standings, as well as stay ahead of both Menard and Ragan, who already have one win on the year.

If the Chase began today the drivers would be as follows: Kyle Busch (four wins), Kevin Harvick (three wins), Matt Kenseth (two wins), Jeff Gordon (two wins), Jimmie Johnson (one win), Carl Edwards (one win), Ryan Newman (one win), Kurt Busch (one win), Tony Stewart (zero wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (zero wins), Brad Keselowski (wild card, two wins) and Denny Hamlin (wild card, one win).