The Chase is the grandiose finale to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It places drivers in a playoff scenario through 10 weeks of racing that culminates with a series champion being crowned.
Racing in NASCAR's premier series is all about the preseason battle for wins and consistently strong finishes, yet some drivers can muddle their way to the Chase's top 10 winless, making some wonder how fair that is.
Heading into Atlanta, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are trying to maintain a grasp on the top 10 in the point standings. With two races left until the Chase, wins do matter and points-racing is dangerous.
To clinch a spot in the Chase, it will be necessary for drivers to leave Atlanta 49 points over the guy who is 11th in the point standings.
Earnhardt Jr. is 39 points ahead of 11th place currently, while Stewart is only 21 ahead of the first wild card slot. If they don't snag a win at Atlanta, their chances at the Chase may hinge on someone else's bad luck.
Junior addressed the media gathered at the rear of his hauler in Bristol, regarding his thoughts on the Chase.
His comments aired on ESPN and Speed TV stated, "I don't know how important it is. It is probably all professional really. You have a lot of race fans, a lot of sponsors and me as a driver, my car owner, everybody. That is your ultimate goal at the start of the season."
Earnhardt Jr. added, "It is important to us all on a professional level. On a personal level, I don't know how much it really matters to me. I want to win a championship."
The obvious must be mentioned here: Junior needs to win some races before he will win a Cup Series championship.
Steve Letarte, the crew chief for the No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard team, made it clear in an interview with Dave Despain on Speed TV that if they didn't have a car that could win, they were essentially racing for points to stay in the top 10.
It is a fine line for a crew chief and his driver, as the regular 26-week season winds down. They will have to decide when to be aggressive and when to just protect their points and maintain the status quo.
Clint Bowyer sits 12th in points, but his winless performance and inconsistency with his RCR Chevy will likely drop him out of contention for the Chase unless he wins at Atlanta or Richmond.
Bowyer is 22 markers out of 10th place in points, and Denny Hamlin is down 38 points, but his one win has him as the leading candidate for the second wild card slot, with Brad Keselowski claiming the first.
The remaining two races can still shake up the Chase contenders.
Should Keselowski race his way into the top 10, somebody else is going to fall out. Will it be Stewart or Earnhardt Jr.?
Lady Luck is a big player in the final two races, just as she is in so many races during the season. The slate with the 2011 Chase players may not be completely revealed until the final lap at Richmond.
Earnhardt Jr. made a valid point that much of the Chase is professional for the owner, sponsors and fans. Once the Chase begins, sadly, the drivers in the rest of the field receive much less attention from the media.
The question still remains that if a driver can't win a race during the 26-week preseason, should they be in the Chase? The answer could be debated ad-nauseum.
Competition in the 2011 season for the Cup Series has been intense, and with the parity among the top teams, the Chase may well have several drivers who could easily steal that sixth title from Jimmie Johnson.
Once the field for the Chase is set after the Richmond race, the points will be reset to 2000 for the 12 drivers. Those in just the top 10 get three additional points for each win they had during the prior 26 weeks.
Wins really do matter. That is what the sport of NASCAR is all about.
The changes made with the Chase and the points system this year have put the emphasis on winning, though consistency is still important.
Those deserving of a shot at the NASCAR Sprint Cup title are being revealed with the top five in the point standings having clinched a berth in the Chase.
Let the racing begin at Atlanta and Richmond, and we are sure to see more drama in the battle to make the Chase.
As usual, the best driver with the most wins and top finishes in the Chase will likely claim the coveted trophy at Homestead.