Which 10 drivers have a shot at breaking into the Chase field?
The top 12 is likely to jostle around in the coming weeks before the Chase
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the cusp, but is still struggling with his crew chief
Trailing by 149 points, Joey Logano has struggled this year, getting only one top-5
With 10 weeks until NASCAR's Chase, the race for a playoff spot is as wide open as any in recent memory. Twelfth-place Carl Edwards has 10 drivers within 225 points, and his winless season (combined with two laps led) leaves him, the inconsistent Mark Martin, and fellow Ford fumblers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle among a handful of drivers currently in the top 12 who are vulnerable to a challenge.
History's also working against them: never has the top 12 in June stayed the same into September. So who behind them is capable of making a move? That's where we'll turn our focus, to the men who stand one summer surge away from salvaging a season and challenging for the championship:
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 57
STOCK: Rising. Earnhardt has back-to-back top-11 finishes for the first time all year, jumping four spots in the standings since the end of May.
SEASON SUMMARY: It's tough to analyze a rebuilding year that could go either way. One race, you think Earnhardt's over a disastrous 2009 that left him 25th in points and zapped his confidence. The next, he's running outside the top 30 and looks like a man who needs six months off. Top-5 and top-10 finishes are up, but perhaps the most important number -- laps led -- is not. He still has an ugly habit of starting strong and fading late, and crew chief Lance McGrew fails to make the right adjustments when it counts. The duo plays it off in the press, but their struggle to communicate remains noticeable to even the most casual observer.
KEY RACE: Daytona. Second at the same venue in February, Earnhardt has the best chance at heading back to Victory Lane on a another trip to Daytona in July. Ending a two-year drought could be the boost this team needs to get over the hump and develop the consistency it's been lacking.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Watkins Glen. Not a road racing expert, Junior struggles when forced to turn right. He dodged a bullet with Infineon, and must do the same at the Glen, a track at which he's had just three top-10 finishes in 10 starts.
OUTLOOK: Earnhardt's still the lowest-ranked Hendrick driver, and that means history's working against him: HMS has never put all four of their cars in the Chase. His recent success has been surprising to most, but I'd still rank his chances at about 50/50. Either way, expect one of two extremes: implosion or explosion.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 74
STOCK: Falling. Disappointing runs of 22nd and 31st the last two weeks took Bowyer right out of the top 12.
SEASON SUMMARY: A man whose career was built on conserving equipment -- Bowyer nearly set a NASCAR record for consecutive races without a DNF (83) -- already has failed to finish twice in 16 starts. While teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick are carving up the track, Bowyer lags behind without a podium finish in any race. Some of that is simple bad luck, but a two-year winless streak, one top-5 finish, and 109 laps led speak volumes about a man who's dropped to third on the totem pole at RCR.
KEY RACE: Richmond. RCR's strength used to be short tracks, and Bowyer's last win came at RIR in May 2008. Likely to enter this race on the bubble, Bowyer knows there's no better way to secure a Chase bid than Victory Lane.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Michigan. Bowyer wrecked in practice at the track, then ran 22nd with a backup car. It can't happen again.
OUTLOOK: RCR is much improved from 2009, but it's hard to go from zero cars in the Chase to all three. The key moment with Bowyer was at Pocono. He led 59 laps, but then lost confidence after a three-wide move with Harvick cost him the lead. Ten laps later, he was in the wall and struggling to ninth, lacking the type of bounceback power his veteran teammates show us every week.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 82
STOCK: Falling. Runs of 14th, 32nd and 16th the last three weeks have left him all but invisible.
SEASON SUMMARY: A perfect balance for temperamental Tony Stewart, Newman's calm, steady persona proved crucial in helping get his teammate's No. 14 righted. There's just one problem: they've now left his No. 39 squarely in the dust, just two months after an improbable Phoenix win was Newman's first since the 2008 Daytona 500. Two DNFs to start the year are now coming back to haunt them.
KEY RACE: Bristol/Richmond. Newman was one of two drivers to score top-10 finishes at all six short tracks in 2010. So far, he's run 16th, 4th and 8th; those numbers have to be better.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Atlanta. Newman hasn't scored a top-5 there in six years. He can't afford for that number to grow to seven.
OUTLOOK: Stewart's own team is heating up like it usually does over the summer. You'd have to think it's only a matter of time before his teammate follows suit.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 142
STOCK: Falling. Two wrecks in the last three weeks have wiped out momentum from a second-place finish at Charlotte.
SEASON SUMMARY: This year's surprise Daytona 500 winner has outperformed even Juan Pablo Montoya in the Chip Ganassi camp. The speed is clearly there -- he's got 140 laps led already - but the consistency is MIA. All you need to know about McMurray's year is this: runs of 17th or worse have followed all four top-2 finishes. That's not how you build momentum toward a Chase bid.
KEY RACE: Daytona. McMurray's won two of the last three restrictor plate races, and anything less than a season sweep would be considered a major disappointment.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Pocono. Thirty-sixth in June after a wreck, a second straight crash would all but wipe out his chances.
OUTLOOK: Three of the last five Daytona 500 winners have gone on to miss the Chase. McMurray's had a fantastic season, but it's hard to see him breaking that curse.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 149
STOCK: Even. Just one lap led, but four top-15 finishes the last five weeks.
SEASON SUMMARY: Sliced Bread's 2010 season is forever defined by his knock on another driver's wife. But while DeLana wears the firesuit in Harvick's family, Logano's struggling to find more than a t-shirt at Joe Gibbs Racing. While teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have won seven of the last 11 races, he's led just 10 laps and earned just one top-5 finish during that span. Can you say sophomore slump?
KEY RACE: Loudon. Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Logano's lone Sprint Cup victory on fuel mileage. A strong performance as defending champ could spark a bit of a second half comeback.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Bristol. He hasn't made it out of there yet without getting wrecked, so simply surviving would have to be considered a win this August. Feuds with Harvick and Montoya could also come to a head there.
OUTLOOK: Logano's been labeled the Jeff Gordon of his generation. Well, guess what; it took Gordon until his third season to have a breakout year.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 151
STOCK: Rising. A pole, then a fourth at Infineon give him back-to-back top-5 finishes for the first time all year.
SEASON SUMMARY: For once, people are talking about Kahne's future on the track and not off it. After a spring defined by rumors about his future with Hendrick in 2011, he's settled in to give it one last gasp with his current team this summer. Considering Richard Petty Motorsports has no drivers or sponsors signed for next season, an unlikely run to the Chase may help them more than Kahne.
KEY RACE: Atlanta. Kahne won last September there en route to making the Chase. A superstar at intermediate tracks, a top-5 at worst could have him charging from behind again.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Drama. Every week, Kahne spends an hour fighting off reports of where he's headed. Until Hendrick formally announces that 2011 ride, constant distractions will wear on him at the No. 9. And don't discount the worries of his crew, either; none of them are guaranteed jobs come Daytona next February.
OUTLOOK: got to give this team credit for performing as well as it has under the circumstances. But it's hard to see any type of lame duck effort charging back to make the Chase.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 157
STOCK: Falling. Forty-second off the heels of Jeff Gordon's back bumper left him an Infineon casualty.
SEASON SUMMARY: That ugly wreck with Gordon -- which took away an almost-certain top-5 finish -- stands out in a year of missed opportunities for the No. 56. Both DNFs have cost them well over 200 points, wiping out what's been a remarkable turnaround in just his first season at Michael Waltrip Racing.
KEY RACE: Daytona. Driving for an owner that has two Daytona 500s, Truex came within a whisker of winning one himself during a green-white-checkered finish. A victory this July could be a necessity to keeping those Chase hopes alive.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Indianapolis. He's never scored a top-10 finish there in five career starts, and needs to build momentum here for an August stretch where he typically struggles.
OUTLOOK: Crew chief Pat Tryson's worked wonders with a team that spent three years simply struggling to qualify with Michael Waltrip. But going this far, this fast is a bit too much to ask.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 161
STOCK: Rising. An average finish of 10.3 the last three weeks has Juan Pablo thinking Chase again.
SEASON SUMMARY: Last year's darkhorse title contender, Montoya's 2010 has been dogged by bad luck: four DNFs and six finishes of 34th or worse. The fact he's still in contention after all that speaks volumes to how well this group clicks. Montoya's like that team in the NCAA bracket you don't want to play in the first round; there's a lot of drivers hoping he stays on the outside looking in come September.
KEY RACE: Indianapolis. Montoya dominated the race last year until a costly pit road speeding penalty late; he'll enter this year a favorite once again. Don't you feel that if he just ever won a race on an oval, a two-or-three win streak wouldn't be far behind?
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Other drivers. Montoya has a habit of ticking people off, with Newman, Logano, and Gordon on his hit list. All it takes is payback from one to send his season back into a tailspin.
OUTLOOK: For months, I've been convinced Montoya's chances for the Chase were gone. But in a year where everyone's had problems, his competition might live to regret letting him stick around for this long.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 180
STOCK: Even. Back-to-back top-5 finishes in May have been wiped out by a ho-hum June (15th, 18th, 20th).
SEASON SUMMARY: Reutimann's season can be summed up in one word: horsepower. The struggles of TRD's engines have led to three DNF's and complaints he's down on power to the competition. At times, the team has shown flashes of brilliance, but just 12 laps led show that it's well behind the near-upset bid from last year.
KEY RACE: Loudon. Reut was fourth and 12th there last season, and needs a top-5 finish to springboard a team that's floundering in mediocrity.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Under the hood. One or more engine-related problems would doom his already faint chances to make the Chase.
OUTLOOK: With Martin Truex, Jr. now number one at MWR, Reutimann's simply struggling to stay relevant. Making the Chase would be as much of a miracle as his rain-delayed Charlotte victory last season.
POINTS BEHIND 12th: 221
STOCK: Rising. Five straight top-15 finishes have led to faint hopes of a miracle.
SEASON SUMMARY: The 'Dinger was a darkhorse Daytona 500 contender until spinning himself out. That's the best example of a team that always seems to save its biggest mistakes for when its got a winning car. One of the more consistent teams as of late, the Ford's handling woes continue to put a kink in its upward momentum.
KEY RACE: Atlanta. The 'Dinger was sixth there in the Spring, and teammate Kahne excels there. An upset victory would do wonders in making a longshot bid a real possibility.
BUMP IN THE ROAD? Short tracks. This team has one top-10 finish in nine short track starts together, and that's just not good enough.
OUTLOOK: Allmendinger's driving like a man whose career is clearly on the line. Expect this summer surge to continue; it just won't be good enough.
PREDICTION: Biffle, Kenseth out; Newman, Montoya in.