With two races left before the start of the season-ending, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, 12 drivers are locked into the 16-driver Chase grid because of wins earlier this season, leaving four spots up for grabs.
Since there are two races left and four spots, at least two drivers will make it into the Chase based on their position in the standings, which means that the drivers on the bubble have to be considering points as they compete in the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
Matt Kenseth, who is fifth in points, and Ryan Newman, who is ninth, are winless this season, but high enough in the standings to make the Chase unless they experience significant problems in the next two races. Kenseth, who led the Cup circuit in wins last year with seven, needs to finish only seventh at AMS to grab a Chase berth.
Clint Bowyer, 10th in the standings, and Greg Biffle, 11th, also would make the Chase on points if it started today, but one or both of them could drop out if a new winner other than them emerges in the next two races.
Among those on the outside of the top 16 looking to make the Chase via a race win are rookie Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon and veterans including Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex Jr.
Kahne, the only Hendrick Motorsports driver not assured of a Chase berth, has wins at Atlanta in 2006 and 2009, but his past four finishes have all been outside the top 20 and three of them outside the top 30. He’s struggled all season, with just two top-five finishes, while his teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson all have three wins apiece, thereby assuring them of being in the Chase.
“We’re in a tough spot still because we need maximum points every week, and we also need a win to secure our spot in the Chase, but we’ve had pretty fast cars, and the team has been doing a much better job,” Kahne said. “I think all of us communicating and working together, it’s been better for the last month, month-and-a-half than what it was earlier in the season.
“We just have to do the same thing, but we need to max our points each weekend and go for wins. Hopefully between one of those we can work our way in.”
Jamie McMurray saw a good chance to make the Chase fade away Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. After leading a race-high 148 laps, the handling on his No. 1 Chevrolet went away and he dropped to eighth at the finish. He has one win this year, but it was in the Sprint All-Star race, a non-points event.
McMurray, who has two career Nationwide Series triumphs at AMS but none on the Cup side, said on this week’s NASCAR teleconference that a win at Atlanta is not out of the question.
“I feel like our cars have been really good at the mile-and-a-half (tracks), all of them this year,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a unique track because we only go there once a year. It certainly has the most fall-off of any track we go to as far as the tires go.
“So it’s just like anywhere else. It will be like being in the right position after the last pit stop and hoping everything falls your way.”
McMurray said that while some observers believe drivers and race teams will step up their performances a notch or two with a lucrative and prestigious Chase berth on the line, he doesn’t see it that way.
“You just race every single week to win,” he said. “So even though we’re down to two races, it’s really not any different than it was at the Daytona 500, the first race of the year. The goal is the same every week. You can’t really do anything different just because we’re down to two races.
“So, yeah, it’s just a regular weekend, and you go, and you perform your best.”