Dustin Long
Monday May 16th, 2011

With a new points system that some suggest penalizes a poor finish more than before and two wild-card spots that reward winning, this isn't an easy time for teams as they prepare for NASCAR's summer stretch.

"I don't know if anybody can tell whether they are really comfortable with where they're at,'' said Tony Stewart, who is 10th in the point standings -- the final guaranteed spot to make the title Chase. "Until that day you know, mathematically, you know that you're locked in, I don't think anybody is comfortable. You know how much a race can change things. We've got a lot of racing to go.''

To review: The top-10 in points after the Richmond race in September make the Chase. The final two spots go to the drivers with the most wins who are between 11th and 20th in the points. If there are not two drivers with wins, then the remaining spot is filled by the driver with the most points. Tiebreakers are broken by points.

As teams take a break from counting points with the Sprint All-Star race Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it provides a chance to assess who will make the Chase and who could have a long summer trying to get into it.

With the two wild-card spots, the prevailing thought is that any driver with two wins between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth each have two wins this season and are in the top-10 in points. Even if they fall out of the top-10, as long as they remain in the top-20 in points they appear to be good to go, so we'll count them as in the Chase.

Thus, the Busch-Harvick rivalry should carry through the rest of the season.

Give three spots to Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer.

Edwards, the points leader, could have three wins. The past two races, he's either led or been second going into the final pit stop and not been able to get back to the front either time. Sunday at Dover, his crew changed four tires on the final stop, dropping him from second to ninth behind those that did not pit or changed only two tires. At Darlington, three cars stayed out when the leaders, including Edwards pitted, and Edwards settled for a second-place finish.

Edwards has been strong and with some big tracks this summer -- where the Fords seem to be best -- he's in a good position and should be safe.

Johnson keeps talking about how his team and Hendrick Motorsports are improving on their intermediate track program. Expect that to continue and for Johnson to again be in the hunt when the Chase begins in September.

After a slow start, Bowyer has finished in the top-10 in six of the last seven races, showing that he seems headed for another Chase spot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman both fit this category.

Earnhardt has been running well but acknowledges there are some tracks during the summer that cause him problems. Specifically, his trouble spots are Pocono, the road courses and Indianapolis.

"It will be a test,'' Earnhardt said. "There are some tracks in there that I'm inconsistent at. If we struggle going to Pocono the first round, I won't be too worried. It may take a year for me and [crew chief Steve Letarte] to really hit it on a few tracks. We've been to every track this year and been a top 10 car and that might not happen everywhere. I feel like it will over time. I definitely look forward to what the rest of the year holds for us.''

Newman also has had his ups and downs. He's shown speed at some tracks, collecting fifth-place finishes at Las Vegas, California, Darlington and Phoenix, but also had issues elsewhere and that's left him a bit vulnerable.

Tony Stewart has been hard to define this year. He could have won at Daytona, Las Vegas, California and Phoenix but things went against him in those races.

The short tracks -- where Stewart often has been strong -- have been his downfall this year. After Richmond he said he was "embarrassed'' by how poor he ran there.

On Stewart's side, though, is that few drivers are better in the summer than he is. Based on that history, he should make the Chase. Even if he does, he's got some work to do to challenge for a title.

These go to the two drivers with the most wins not in the top-10, but between 11th and 20th in the points.

Eleven races into the season, only one driver between 11th and 20th has a win. That's Jeff Gordon, who is 14th in the points.

While there's a good chance Gordon can climb into the top 10, let's say he doesn't. As long as he stays between 11th and 14th in the points, he should make it. If he falls further in the points and has only that one win, he could be bumped out by others with a win since the tiebreaker is based on points.

So, who gets the second wild-card spot?

Go with Juan Pablo Montoya. He ranks 15th and has been up and down all season. Here's the thing, look at the remaining 15 races before the Chase begins. There's Infineon Raceway, where Montoya has won at before and never finished outside the top-10. There's Watkins Glen, where Montoya won last year. There's Indianapolis where he's led the most laps in each of the past two races only to have misfortune prevent him from winning either.

If he can win one of those three races, it might be enough to get him into the Chase as long as he remains 15th or better in the points. If he wins two of those races, he should be in the Chase.

So, that leaves one spot left. Among the drivers fighting for it could be Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith, among others.

Although he's struggled at times this season, Hamlin is the favorite among this group because he's won at so many tracks that remain before the Chase begins. He's won two of the last three at Pocono, won at Michigan last year and won the fall Richmond race the past two years. If Hamlin needs to win at Richmond to make the Chase, the odds will be in his favor.

Biffle is another to watch. Fords have won both races on 1.5-mile tracks this season (Edwards at Las Vegas and Kenseth at Texas) and could be a threat in the remaining four 1.5-mile races before the Chase is set (Charlotte, Kansas, Kentucky and Atlanta). Biffle won at Kansas last fall. So, he's one that could turn wins into a Chase spot or possibly gain enough points to climb into the top-10.

The most intriguing driver is Kurt Busch. He led the points early when he was the only driver to open the season with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He's had one top-10 in the seven races since. His epic rant on the radio at Richmond has led to some changes with how things are done at Penske Racing. The question is if those changes are made in time to keep Busch in a Chase spot or will he fall further back?

Or will Martin rise up and take a spot? Or Truex? Or someone else?

Four months might seem a long time before the Chase begins, but to teams it will be here in a hurry. The question is if they'll be racing for a championship or just be one of 30 other cars on the track.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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