With three races left in the Sprint Cup's regular season, there are essentially six drivers competing for the final three spots that advance to the Chase. Here's a look at the Bubble Boys.
Currently 10th in the standings, Biffle holds a 42-point advantage over Brian Vickers, who's in 13th. Biffle's performance has been uneven over the last few weeks. He finished fourth at Indy, 15th at Pocono, fifth at Watkins Glen and 20th at Michigan. But Biffle has been running better than his results show. He ran out of gas last week at Michigan, which caused him to drop through the field late, and he had a car capable of winning at Indy.
Biffle said on Friday at Bristol that he won't take many chances on the track, preferring instead to play it cautious. This means he won't gamble on pit road with two-tire stops and certainly won't try to stretch fuel. This is a sound strategy, because if he averages a 15th-place finish over these final three races -- his average finish for the year is 15.2 -- Biffle should make it in.
Kenseth is 11th and has a 32-point cushion over Vickers. Of all the drivers in the top-12, Kenseth, I think, is the most vulnerable. After winning the first two races on the schedule, Kenseth has been oddly quiet. He hasn't had a top-five run since May and hasn't finished in the top 10 in the past three races. In other words, he's not exactly peaking right now.
Like all of the Roush Fords, Kenseth's No. 17 car simply appears down on speed this season. He's one of only two drivers to have qualified for every Chase -- Jimmie Johnson is the other -- but given his recent performance, it looks like he'll be sitting out this year's playoff.
No driver this season has had worse racing luck than Martin, who's 12th in the standings and has a 12-point lead over Vickers. If not for a few blown engines, cut tires, and accidents, he could easily have seven victories now, not four. But still, Martin has more W's than any other driver, and if the Chase started today, he'd be in first place by virtue of the 40 bonus points earned via his victories.
No question, Martin should make it in. Piloting Hendrick equipment, he has consistently been as fast in the No. 5 Chevy as any other car in the series. But Martin may be the most snake-bitten driver in the history of NASCAR -- he's finished runner-up in the final standings a record four times -- so there's no guarantee with him. Still, you have to like his chances.
Seven weeks ago, no on in the garage would have told you that Vickers had any hope of making the Chase. He'd just gotten wrecked at Loudon and was more than 200 points out of 12th place. But since then, Vickers has scored the second-most points in the series and is only 12 points out of 12th. Vickers has been one of the best stories in NASCAR over the second half of the season, and I think it would now be an upset if he didn't make it in. Mark it down: Team Red Bull is on the rise.
Like Vickers, Bowyer has come on strong in recent weeks. Over the past five races he's scored four top 10s and now trails Martin by 58 points. Alas, it's too little, too late for Bowyer. His season was lost back in the spring, when he had a stretch of six races in which he didn't finish higher than 18th. In fact, this has been a disappointing year for the entire Richard Childress Racing outfit. A season after RCR put two drivers in the Chase, this one won't feature anyone bearing the RCR logo. Bowyer is out.
Busch, who has three wins this season, trails Martin by 70 points for the final Chase spot. The good news? Bristol is one of his best tracks on the circuit. He won here in the spring and last August finished second at the short track. Busch is also good at Atlanta (one career victory) and Richmond (one career victory). So, if nothing else, the remaining regular season schedule sets up well for him.
But this is a struggling team. He has only one top-five run in his past 13 starts, and he's made more questionable moves on the racetrack -- his competitors have used much harsher words to describe Busch recently -- than anyone else in the series. He's driving like he's desperate, which he is. He won't make it in.