Cory Mccartney
Thursday September 2nd, 2010

1. Kevin Harvick has already locked up his Chase spot. So too has Jeff Gordon. They could be joined by nine more drivers clinching their places in the 10-race playoff by the time the lights dim on Atlanta Motor Speedway late Sunday night into early Labor Day morning. For them, Richmond will be a formality.

But for Clint Bowyer, it could be something else entirely.

One hundred points. That's what separates Bowyer and Jamie McMurray for the 12th and final spot in the Chase, while Mark Martin is 101 behind -- and while closing the gap with two races left is a daunting task, if you're Bowyer, you couldn't be more uncomfortable with any other driver chasing you down than McMurray.

Well, depending on which Jamie Mac arrives in Hampton, Ga., this weekend.

The good McMurray has nine finishes of eighth or better, including two wins, three second places and a third. The bad McMurray has been outside the top 20 a total of 11 times. But over the last six races, he's averaged a 9.5 finish and he's shown improvement on the tracks that most resemble Atlanta since coming in 29th there in March. And let's not forget the big-race heroics this season. Given the successes McMurray has had on the sport's biggest stages (wins at Daytona and Indianapolis and second at Talladega), a 100-point deficit with two races to go doesn't seem that insurmountable.

Also playing in his favor is Bowyer's struggles in Atlanta. He's posted a 23rd and 29th in the last two races and has led four laps in the last two years, and let's face it, he's the one who has to advert disaster to hold onto this Chase spot.

It's unlikely McMurray, or Martin for that matter, will leapfrog Bowyer this weekend, just as it's unlikely Bowyer will leave Atlanta with the necessary 196-point cushion to solidify a playoff berth. That should be music to NASCAR's ears. With possibly 99 percent of the Chase field set, Richmond could turn into a Sunday stroll through a ¾-mile park, but it looks like there's going to be some regular-season finale drama. Bowyer and McMurray should be the ones to decide just how much.

2. Here's a sobering thought: It's September and Gordon and Tony Stewart still don't have primary sponsorships lined up for 2011. Yep, two of the series' most Madison Avenue-friendly faces, who have a combined six Cup titles between them, still don't know whose stickers are going to be draped across their Chevys next season.

Let's not kid ourselves here. They'll wind up with sponsors well before Speedweeks hit Daytona in February. The rumor mill has Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports in negotiations with Wal-Mart, bringing the retailer in on a deal that would allow it to place six of the team's packaged goods partners -- reportedly Coca-Cola, Kraft, Mars, MillerCoors, Procter & Gamble and Unilever -- on Gordon's hood. Meanwhile, reports have Stewart talking with Mobil 1, which is leaving Sam Hornish Jr. and Roger Penske after the season.

The smart money, and this is just a hunch, would be on both deals getting done. But the fact that two of the sport's most recognizable names are still negotiating this late certainly doesn't bode well for another Cup veteran, Elliott Sadler.

Sadler, who is parting ways with Richard Petty Motorsports, recently said he's been in talks with at least one organization that's looking to expand (Furniture Row? Prism?), but at the end of the day Sadler's not getting a ride unless he can get a sponsor on-board to foot the bill. It wouldn't be surprising to see him taking a year away from the series to focus on Nationwide, where he has two top 10s in three starts in 2010, and the Trucks series, where he won in July. If there's uncertainty surrounding Gordon and Stewart, it may mean the well is all but dry for a driver whose last Cup win came six years ago.

7: Pole wins by Ryan Newman at Atlanta Motor Speedway, tying him with Buddy Baker for the most ever at the track.

0: Jimmie Johnson's poles at AMS.

0: Newman's career victories at the track.

3: J.J.'s wins on the 1.54-mile quad oval.

Kurt Busch. He's taken the Blue Deuce to Victory Lane in two of the last three trips to the ATL, including a win six months ago, and he's finished outside the top 11 just once in four years. He's also been building momentum as the Chase nears, coming in ninth at Bristol and second at Watkins Glen. But you just know he'd feel that much better about his championship chances with another win and 10 more bonus points. He'll get both Sunday.

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