With the Chase fast approaching, the number of races left for contenders to reel in points leader Kyle Busch are quickly coming and going. Busch’s 80 bonus points – as of now – guarantees the No. 18 team the number one spot once the Chase begins. However, Carl Edwards narrowed that deficit to 40 with his win this weekend at Michigan – although he’ll need to watch his back. As many as five other drivers can tie Carl for the number two seed with three races remaining.
There’s also been no better time to drive a Blue Oval in the Cup Series this year. Edwards is just one of the five Roush Fenway drivers who make either the HOT or WARM lists this week, and Travis Kvapil, David Gilliland and even the Wood Brothers have been impressive during at least one of the last two races. But while the Ford camp has found the magic touch, other teams and manufacturers are struggling with just three weeks to go until the playoffs. To see who could really go for a win – and who’s left to challenge Busch and Edwards for the title – check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.
Edwards: Maybe there’s something to this Edwards/Busch rivalry after all. They’re not enemies by any means; however, it does appear that Edwards is at least the Milorad Cavic to Lil’ Busch’s Michael Phelps-esque dominance this season. But while Cavic fell just one hundredth of a second short to Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly, Edwards hopes for a better result come Chase time. In his last six races, he’s putting the pressure on with two wins and two second-place finishes to go along with a ninth-place finish at Watkins Glen.
For the next few weeks, Edwards must now simply focus on closing the gap between him and his rival as much as possible. A much-needed win this weekend closed the pre-Chase deficit between he and Busch to 40 points, and Edwards now has two tracks approaching where he’s found quite a bit of success (Bristol, Fontana).
Busch: OK, I apologize for comparing Busch to Michael Phelps earlier (although both are currently stuck on the number eight). Busch may not be half the athlete Phelps is, but his eight wins this season have been nothing short of impressive. It appeared – for two races at least – that Busch was slipping into a slump. But in the last two weeks, that myth quickly disappeared with a first- and second-place finish. Still not convinced? Remember, the No. 18 has now won four of the last eight races.
Tony Stewart: If Busch is Michael Phelps, then Stewart is Ryan Lochte – the forgotten teammate whose athletic success has been all but overshadowed. People still think Stewart’s struggling right now, but he has three top fives in his last five races and finished a respectable 12th this weekend despite contact with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. With consistent finishes as of late, Stewart has moved up to sixth in points.
Kevin Harvick: After a crash dropped him out of the Chase four races ago at Indianapolis, Harvick has since strung together three consecutive top 10s – including an eighth-place run this weekend at Michigan after charging from his 38th starting spot. Now 103 points ahead of the Chase cutoff and in the eighth position in points, the No. 29 team has a little breathing room with three races remaining before the playoffs.
David Ragan: The No. 6 hasn’t been a contender for a couple of years now, but Ragan and crew chief Jimmy Fennig have finally changed that. With four top 10s in his last six races – including a career best third this week – Ragan is now just 26 points away from making the Chase.
Greg Biffle: Biffle is looking good as far as making the Chase is concerned (119 points ahead of 12th), but is going to need more consistency to contend for the championship. With a fourth-place finish this weekend, Biffle has three top 10s (two top fives) in his last five races, but finishes of 13th and 21st in his other two.
Matt Kenseth: In his last six races, Kenseth has posted five finishes in the top 12, with his lone hiccup coming at Indianapolis where he finished 38th. Following a fifth-place run this weekend at Michigan, the No. 17 has moved from 12th in points to 10th, 74 points ahead of the cutoff.
Mark Martin: I haven’t really mentioned Martin in the column this year because of his shortened schedule, but in just 17 races, the future Hendrick driver has finished outside of the top 20 just four times while putting together back-to-back top 10 runs in August.
Jamie McMurray: Despite being the weak link in the Roush Fenway camp for much of the season, McMurray has really turned it on as of late. While a 10th-place run this weekend garnered some attention as the last of all five Roush cars that made the top 10 at Michigan, it was actually McMurray’s third such finish in his last four starts in the series.
Dale Earnhardt Jr./Gordon: Both Hendrick drivers are struggling as the Chase approaches. While Junior has run strong at the start of races and is all but guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, he has not had the finishes to match. Gordon, on the other hand, is slipping closer and closer to the Chase cutoff. With an uncharacteristic 29th-place finish at Watkins Glen two weeks ago and an accident and 42nd-place finish this weekend, Gordon is now just 82 points ahead of 13th in points.
Kurt Busch: It’s been a down year for the Penske camp as a whole, but the elder Busch’s 36th-place finish this week is his third one outside the Top 35 since Indianapolis the end of July.
Dave Blaney: Here’s the last four races for Blaney: Indy – 35th; Pocono – 31st; Watkins Glen – 41st; Michigan – 41st. A hard crash this weekend at Michigan led to Blaney’s second consecutive DNF, and brings the No. 22 closer to falling out of the Top 35 in owner points. He’s now just 59 ahead of the No. 66 team of Scott Riggs.
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