Tony Stewart's broken leg combined with the results of Sunday's road course race at Watkins Glen have jumbled the Sprint Cup point standings with only four races left before the Chase for the championship begins.
It's evident that Stewart's injury in a short-track event early last week will sideline him long enough that he will not make the 12-driver Chase, opening a spot in the field and giving added hope to several drivers who were facing long odds of qualifying.
The situation became even more muddled after Watkins Glen, where Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne were all caught up in accidents and finished 30th or worse. Meanwhile, a number of other drivers who were in desperate need of gaining ground in the standings had crucial top-10 runs. Things are now so tight that only five points separate ninth place from 12th in the standings.
It appears that seven drivers have secured spots in the field. Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are far enough ahead in points that it's extremely likely they will remain in the top 10, which guarantees them a spot in the Chase. And while Matt Kenseth has only a 36-point cushion over 11th place, his four victories make him a lock to earn at least a wild card berth no matter where he is in the points standings. (The two drivers ranked from 11th to 20th who have the most victories receive those spots).
Likewise, Kahne, currently 12th in the standings, is in good shape for at least a wild card by virtue of his two wins. He'll make things interesting if he can creep back into the top 10 and earn a Chase berth that way, which would open a wild card spot for another driver.
The winless Dale Earnhardt Jr. does not have the luxury of relying on victories, so he needs to make sure that he remains in the top 10 in points. That became somewhat less certain following his 30th-place finish at Watkins Glen, though at No. 6 he maintains a 47-point lead over 11th place, currently held by Kurt Busch. Still, another bad finish in the next week or two could make Junior Nation a little nervous.
Assuming that Earnhardt makes it in, the real battle will be among eight drivers competing for four spots. And that's where things get confusing. Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is in the top 10 in the points (eighth), but he's winless and could easily fall out and miss the Chase. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman is 14th, but he has a win, which currently places him in the Chase field. Yet he could be knocked out quickly if Kurt Busch or Gordon -- who are both ahead of him in points -- picks up a victory in the next four races.
Even Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano, who are 15th and 16th respectively, could still sneak into the Chase with a late win. Newman is only five points ahead of McMurray and seven ahead of Logano. Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. are also still in contention and could easily make or miss the Chase.
It all adds up to an extremely interesting next four weeks, as the chase to make the Chase heads into a heated home stretch.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Unless he falls completely apart over the next four weeks, Johnson will go into the Chase in first place in both the points and the Power Rankings. He has a 75-point advantage over second place in the standings, which means he could miss a race entirely and still have a comfortable lead.
2. Kyle Busch (2nd) -- It's starting to look like Busch might be the top contender to challenge Johnson for the championship. He has avoided controversy for most of the season and instead let his driving do the talking. His victory at Watkins Glen was his third win of the season, and he has finished worse than 12th only once in the past 10 races.
3. Clint Bowyer (8th) -- He's made such a big jump in the rankings not just because he finished sixth at Watkins Glen, but nearly everybody ranked ahead of him last week had trouble in the race (or, in the case of Stewart, suffered an injury). Bowyer now has an impressive streak of 17 consecutive top-20 finishes.
4. Kasey Kahne (3rd) -- For the third time in the past eight races, an accident sent Kahne to a finish in the 30s. He has not been worse than 11th in the other five races of that span, which is why we're keeping him so high in the rankings even though he's 12th in the points.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (4th) -- He was involved in that same accident with Kahne and finished worse than 14th for the first time in seven races. Earnhardt probably will make the Chase, but a victory at Michigan this week -- the only place he has won since 2006 -- would seal the deal.
6. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- The third victim of that melee with eight laps to go on Sunday, Kenseth continued an odd season that has seen him collect four victories, but also finish outside the top 20 six times (including five in the past 10 races).
7. Kevin Harvick (6th) -- After ripping off nine consecutive top-10s -- a stretch that includes a victory at Charlotte -- Harvick has failed to crack the top 10 in the past three races. One has to wonder whether his lame duck status (he's leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart Haas after this season) is starting to affect his results.
8. Carl Edwards (10th) -- Edwards had a solid fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen. Still, it was only his second top-10 in his past six races, and the team still has work to do if it wants to be a legitimate contender in the Chase.
9. Kurt Busch (unranked) -- If he can somehow get Furniture Row Racing into the Chase (he's only two points out of 10th place), it would be one of the top stories of the season. He has five top-10s in his past seven races, and in the process has jumped from 20th to 11th in the standings.
10. Brad Keselowski (unranked) -- For a long time, it appeared that the defending champ might not even make the Chase. But his runner-up showing at Watkins Glen gave him three finishes in the top six over the past four races, and he has risen to eighth in the points.