Half of NASCAR’s 36 Sprint Cup races are in the books.
Eight races remain until the Chase will begin at Chicago. The top 10 in the standings after Richmond, Va., on Sept. 8 will automatically qualify for the Chase.
The two drivers in Positions 11-20 with the most victories will make it as wild cards.
Here’s a group of 10 contenders and pretenders for spots in the Chase – and for the championship.
Matt Kenseth (first in points, one victory): He has been his usual steady self, following up a victory at the Daytona 500 with eight more top-five finishes. Key question: Can the attention that has come from his decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing – still leaving where he will race next season up in the air – not be a distraction?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (second, 1): Getting that non-winning streak over with should allow Earnhardt to concentrate solely on pursuing his first Cup championship. He is the only driver on the circuit to have completed every lap this season.
Jimmie Johnson (fourth, 2): If there’s anybody who knows how to win a title, it’s Johnson and his No. 48 Chevy. Reclaiming the championship he won five consecutive times in 2006-10 is his top priority.
Tony Stewart (tie fifth, 3): Stewart is tied with Brad Keselowski for most wins, but he was docked six points for a qualifying violation before last week’s victory at Daytona. He served notice in that race, winning after starting 42nd.
Brad Keselowski (ninth, 3): Tends to either win or finish out of the running. A victory June 30 at Kentucky and an eighth last week at Daytona were his first top-10s in four races.
Carl Edwards (11th, 0): Edwards will remain on the precipice of not making the Chase until he wins a race. He hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of last season, when he went to the wire with Stewart for the title.
Kasey Kahne (16th, 1): Kahne will need to keep rising in the points to be in contention with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano for a wild-card spot. That streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes proves he can do that.
Jeff Gordon (17th, 0): Time is running out for the luckless four-time champ, who must start winning races to even think about a wild-card spot.
Clint Bowyer (10th, 1): He dropped three places in points after a 29th-place finish at Daytona. Could use another victory to stave off Busch and Logano for a wild card.
Kyle Busch (12th, 1): He’d be in the Chase today as a wild card, but he hasn’t had a top-five since a third at Charlotte in May.
Busch wins pole
Kyle Busch posted a lap of 133.417 mph on Friday to capture his first pole position of the season for Sunday’s race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.