NASCAR Sprint Cup: 12 Drivers on the Chase Bubble Heading Into Michigan

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 12 Drivers on the Chase Bubble Heading Into Michigan

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    Call them the dubious dozen.

    Time is running out for 12 drivers to make this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Including Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, there are just four races left for these drivers to secure their spot in the 12-driver Chase, which begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Il.

    Heading into this weekend's race, the numbers are four up and eight down—four drivers who are currently in the top 10 of the Sprint Cup standings but not secure by any means, as well as eight drivers from 11th through 18th who are vying to either make a late rally to crack the top 10 or make the Chase as one of two wildcard qualifiers.

    We break down each driver's respective situation and what he needs to do Sunday at Michigan. 

Martin Truex Jr.: "Just Win, Baby, Just Win"

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    He may be only 49 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson and a decent 34 points ahead of 10th-ranked Denny Hamlin, but sixth-ranked Martin Truex Jr. is one of two drivers currently in the top 10 without even one win this season (Kevin Harvick is the other).

    Truex's task is simple: As the late Al Davis, former owner of the Oakland Raiders, was fond of saying, "Just win, baby, just win." Truex cannot afford to slip up in the three races remaining after Michigan, so nothing less than a win will suffice if he hopes to make the Chase for only the second time in his Cup career.

    The only other time Truex made the Chase was 2007, the same year he won his first—and only, to date—Cup race.

Clint Bowyer: Can the Emporia, Ks. Farm Boy Hang on to Make the Chase?

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    Clint Bowyer has one win thus far this season. That's good. Currently in seventh place, he also leads 10th-ranked Denny Hamlin by 26 points. That's also good—but a margin that could change very quickly if Bowyer has a bad day Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

    Bowyer needs at least a top-5, but a win would be far more preferred to move him closer toward assuring a spot in the Chase.

"Happy" Harvick Isn't Very Happy Right Now

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    Kevin Harvick has been fairly consistent all season, being in the top 10 most of the first 22 races. But being ranked ninth with four races left—and more importantly, without any wins and just 17 points ahead of 10th-ranked Denny Hamlin—Harvick is perhaps in the most risky spot of any of the 12 drivers on the bubble right now.

    Unless he has strong outings at Michigan on Sunday, at Bristol next week (one of his more successful tracks), Atlanta in two weeks and the final pre-Chase qualifying race at Richmond, Harvick can kiss his Chase chances goodbye. If he falls out of the top 10, he won't qualify as one of the two wild card entries—unless he wins at least two of the next four races.

    He has that ability in him, but does he have the car and team to get it done? That's the million-dollar question right now.

Even with Two Wins, Hamlin Is Not a Lock to Make the Chase

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    Denny Hamlin has two wins, which should be enough for him to make the Chase this year.

    But coming into Sunday's race ranked in 10th place, the last thing Hamlin needs is for Kasey Kahne (already with two wins, yet ranked 11th) to win another race, or for Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose or Joey Logano—all outside the top 10 and with one win each—to win one or potentially two more races in the next four.

    That could potentially leave Hamlin as the odd man out when the Chase begins, neither as a top-10 or even wildcard Chase qualifier.

Kasey Kahne Is Perhaps the Biggest Wild Card of All

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    Kasey Kahne sits in 11th place with two wins and four races left to make the Chase. While he's not yet a lock to make the Chase as either a top 10 or wild card qualifier, he's really stepped up his game in the middle third of the season.

    If Kahne wins one of the next four races—and he's previously won at all but one of those tracks (Bristol)—he can pretty safely send out invites to his friends for his Chase-clinching party.

Carl Edwards Has Been a Shadow of the Man Who Nearly Won It All Last Season.

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    Carl Edwards had arguably his best season ever last season. Had it not been for Tony Stewart's five wins that provided a championship-winning tiebreaker, Edwards would have been the defending Sprint Cup champion this season instead of Stewart.

    But 2012 has been a very frustrating season for Edwards. He hasn't won even once, his crew chief stepped down for medical reasons and perhaps most frustrating of all, if things don't improve in a big way Sunday at Michigan and the following three races after that, Edwards will very likely be on the outside looking in when it comes time for the Chase for the Sprint Cup to start a month from now.

Ryan Newman Will Need Help to Make the Chase, but He's Certainly Capable.

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    Ryan Newman has one win, which technically puts him halfway toward making the Chase as a wild card pick—provided there aren't any other wild card candidates that wind up with three wins by the time Richmond comes around in three more weeks.

    But the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet can go a long way toward helping his chances by winning Sunday at Michigan. He's one of the better superspeedway drivers, and if he teams up with teammate and team owner Tony Stewart, it could be one heck of a celebration for Stewart-Haas Racing come Chase time.

    Perhaps more than anything, Newman has the potential to be one of the biggest dark horses of the eight drivers currently outside the top 10 vying to make the Chase.

What's Happened to Kyle Busch This Season?

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    Okay, who has kidnapped the real Kyle Busch and who is this imposter behind the wheel of the No. 18 Toyota? How can a guy who has missed the Chase just once in the previous six years find himself in 14th place in the standings and a hefty 55 points outside of the top 10?

    Busch has obviously been on his best behavior after all the controversy of last year—including getting caught speeding 128 mph in a 45 mph zone on a country road, getting into a celebrated pit road skirmish with Kevin Harvick and intentionally punting Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall in a matter of on-track road rage (which led to a one-race suspension and his sponsor pulling support for the last two races of the season).

    But in being on his best behavior, Busch's driving has become almost boring this season. He's had at least three wins in each of the last four seasons, but at the rate he's going now, he'll be lucky to earn a second win this season, let alone make the Chase.

Does Jeff Gordon Still Have a Chance at the Chase?

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    Up until he won the rain-shortened race at Pocono, many people were wondering if Jeff Gordon's career was all but over. So many missed opportunities at victory, so many times coming up short.

    But after the Pocono win, all of a sudden people began talking about Jeff Gordon, possible Chase contender.

    Sitting in 15th place heading into Sunday's race at Michigan, Gordon is 143 points behind series leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and nearly 60 points out of the top 10.

    No ifs, ands or buts about it, Gordon needs to win at least two of the next four races to make the Chase. Otherwise people will once again start wondering if Gordon's career truly is all but over, especially since this would become only the second time he's missed the Chase in its now eight-year existence. Let alone facing the possibility of having the worst season finish ever of his Cup career.

Is Paul Menard All but Done?

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    Paul Menard had such an inspirational win in last year's Brickyard 400, making many observers think that he was right around the corner of becoming one of the more consistent—and winning—drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit.

    Unfortunately, Menard has spent much of the 2012 season driving around almost in neutral. He's currently in 16th position with no wins, no top 5 and only four top-10 finishes thus far.

    Unless a miracle happens and Menard pilots his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet into victory lane in each of the next four races, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Menard will not make the Chase this year.

    Still, a win at a place like Michigan could ignite him and his team, or at least give them a flicker of hope still remaining. But he'd have to get into full-on blaze mode over the next four races; otherwise, his Chase hopes will leave him with nothing more than a wisp of smoke.

Can Sunday Be a Good Day for Ambrose, Mate?

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    Marcos Ambrose is a shining example of the beauty of the great points system NASCAR has in the Sprint Cup Series. No sooner did Ambrose win on the road course at Watkins Glen for the second consecutive year and he suddenly became a bona fide Chase contender.

    Sure, the Tasmanian native still has a long way to go—he needs to win at least one, if not two of the next four races to make the Chase—but his Watkins Glen win has given his team new motivation, new purpose and new inspiration that they can still make the playoffs.

    Surprisingly to many, Ambrose has become a rather competent driver on some of the bigger tracks on the circuit, including places like Atlanta, California and this weekend's venue, Michigan.

    If Ambrose can win Sunday, he could very easily go on to become one of the biggest surprise stories NASCAR has seen in many years. 

Should We Call Him Joey "Last but Not Least" or Maybe "Last Gasp" Logano?

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    Joey Logano hasn't even come close to making the Chase in his first three seasons on the Sprint Cup circuit.

    Yet now, in the final year of his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano is only four races away from making the Chase.

    It's what he has to do in between that's the key. Logano is probably the longest of longshots, but at the same time, remember he DOES have one win this season thus far. And with NASCAR's points system, it doesn't make a bit of difference that Logano is currently 18th in the standings, a massive 190 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson and 106 points behind 10th-ranked and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

    All Logano has to do is win one more race, and it would propel him into the pool for the second wild card spot to make the Chase. He may not be able to win at Michigan—it's not exactly conducive to his style of racing—yet because this is only the second Cup race held on the recently-repaved, 2.0-mile MIS track, Logano has as good a chance as any driver to win there this Sunday. After all, didn't Dale Earnhardt Jr. break his 143-race winless streak at the newly repaved MIS back in June?

    Sure, the odds are long for a Logano rally to make the Chase, but if he can do it, it's pretty clear that his contract situation and potential return to JGR for 2013 would be all but assured.