NASCAR: Top 7 Contenders for Final 2 Chase Spots with 2 Races to Go
The Chase picture has cleared somewhat after the smoke from Brad Keselowski's third burnout of 2011 has drifted away.
In the aftermath of a Bristol night race that saw plenty of beating and banging, the top nine drivers are basically locked into the Chase for the Championship.
(Junior Nation, feel free to breathe a collective sigh of relief.)
Meanwhile, Keselowski will get in either as a wild card, or possibly as a member of the top 10.
That leaves just two slots open for the rest of the field. To make it in, some drivers will need to maintain their current positions while several others are in must-win mode.
As many as ten drivers are technically in contention for a spot in the Chase, but in reality only about seven have much hope. Here they are, ranked from least likely to most likely to make the Chase.
7. Greg Biffle
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Greg Biffle looks frustrated in this photo, and rightly so.
The No. 16 team has been firing on six cylinders at best for the last few months, with just two top-10s in the past 11 races.
Biffle has fallen to 16th in the standings and his only shot at making the Chase is to win a race and pass Hamlin in the points. Biffle currently trails the No. 11 team by 23 points, so even if he wins a race, it'll be a long shot to move ahead of Hamlin.
Odds of making the Chase: 5 percent
6. Paul Menard
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Paul Menard's season was looking golden only a few races ago.
Following a storybook win at Indianapolis, he was in position to earn the second wild card spot. Since that glorious day, however, the wheels have come off for the No. 27 team.
In the last three races, Menard has finishes of 26th or worse. He's barely inside the top 20 and trails Denny Hamlin by an insurmountable 41 points.
Menard's only hope to make the Chase is to win one of the final two races before the Chase. If he does so he won't have to worry about passing Hamlin, because two wins will give Menard the wild card even if Hamlin is higher in the points with one win.
Atlanta is probably Menard's best bet for a win. He scored a top-five there in 2010.
Odds of making the Chase: 5 percent
Note: David Ragan (one win, 21st in points) and Marcos Ambrose (one win, 22nd) are in practically the same situation as Menard, but I give those drivers even less of a shot at winning at Atlanta or Richmond, and therefore didn't include them in these rankings.
5. A.J. Allmendinger
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2011 is a season of what-could-have-been for A.J. Allmendinger.
The charismatic driver of the famed No. 43 machine was supposed to get his first Sprint Cup win and threaten for a Chase berth this season. But that hasn't really happened.
"Wait," you say, "Allmendinger is on this list, so he must be in contention to make the Chase."
Yes, but barely.
To get in, he'll have to win, which he's never done before. However, Atlanta and Richmond are among the 'Dinger's better tracks. He has an average finish of about 15th at both tracks, with two Richmond top-10s and one at Atlanta.
With a win, Allmendinger would likely move past Hamlin to claim the second wild card, as he is just eight markers behind Hamlin in the standings.
Odds of making the Chase: 10 percent
4. Kasey Kahne
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Kasey Kahne is winless and behind A.J. Allmendinger in the points, but I give him a better shot at making the Chase because he's done it before—by which I mean he's both won races and made the Chase in previous seasons.
Of course, Kahne has never won with Red Bull, a team that has a grand total of one Sprint Cup win on its resume. But Kahne gave Richard Petty Motorsports its first win in quite a while back in 2009, and I wouldn't put it past him to do the same for Red Bull.
Kahne has two Atlanta wins, one as recently as 2009 and one at Richmond. He's a long shot, but far from an impossibility to make the Chase. He'll have to win and simultaneously catch Denny Hamlin, whom he trails by 16 points.
Odds of making the Chase: 15 percent
3. Clint Bowyer
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Clint Bowyer can make the Chase in either of two ways.
He can make up the 22-point difference that separates him from Tony Stewart in 10th, or he can win and make the Chase as a wild card.
Bowyer is good at both tracks. He won at Richmond in 2008 and has five finishes of seventh or better at Atlanta. A win isn't out of the question, and Bowyer is already 16 points ahead of Denny Hamlin in the standings so he doesn't have to worry about passing him.
Making up his deficit to Stewart is also a possibility, if Stewart has a couple more runs like the horrible finishes the No. 14 team has been enduring lately. Of course, Bowyer hasn't been doing so hot himself, so he'll need to turn his own team around first.
Odds of making the Chase: 25 percent
2. Tony Stewart
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Tony Stewart is currently in the Chase zone, but his position is precarious.
He's just 21 points ahead of the hottest driver in the sport, Brad Keselowski. Four races ago, Stewart and Keselowski were separated by 98 points.
After his Bristol win, Keselowski is now 11th in the points and would love to make the Chase as a member of the top 10, so that his three wins could count as bonus points in the Chase.
Stewart will have to do better than his 28th-place Bristol run if he wants to stay clear of Keselowski. Atlanta and Richmond are two of Smoke's better tracks, so I think he has a good shot of staying in the top 10.
Then again, with the way BK has been running recently...
Odds of making the Chase: 60 percent
1. Denny Hamlin
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Denny Hamlin has suffered a major letdown after his near-championship campaign in 2010.
Hamlin appears to be suffering from the Jimmie Johnson Curse, but nonetheless he's still in position to make the Chase for the sixth straight season.
As long as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard et al don't win one of the next two races, Hamlin is guaranteed a Chase berth.
Of course, he could take away the pressure by simply stepping up and winning one of the races himself.
However, with just two top-10s in the nine races since his long win of the year at Michigan, I don't see that happening—despite the fact that he's the two-time defending race winner at Richmond.
Odds of making the Chase: 70 percent