If you think Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway did nothing to clarify, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup picture, take another look.
Yes, the Sharpie 500 did tighten the spread between positions seven through 14 in the Cup standings. And, yes, the race did put two drivers who seemed relatively comfortable entering the event -Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne - back in limbo.
In reality, though, the race at Bristol narrowed the field. Of the drivers outside the top twelve, only Kyle Busch (Saturday's winner) and Brian Vickers (a miraculous 12th at Bristol) have a chance to replace a driver in one of the Chase-eligible positions. Of the current top twelve, Matt Kenseth (12th) and Kasey Kahne (11th) are most vulnerable. There are two more races before the field is set.
Though he fell from 13th to 14th in the standings, Vickers stayed in the picture by surviving, thanks to two free passes back to the lead lap, astute strategy from crew chief Ryan Pemberton and the ability to stay out of trouble on a track that historically has been a problem for Vickers.
“It wasn't one of our best finishes, but it definitely could have been worse,” Vickers said. “Bristol has never been one of my better tracks in a Cup car for whatever reason. Ryan made some great calls for track position, and we were able to get the lucky dog twice.
“It sucks losing a spot in the points, but don't count us out - this team doesn't give up. We are still very much in this.”
No argument there. Vickers, who trails Kenseth by 39 points, should have speed for the September 6 race at Atlanta, where he finished fifth in March. The test for Vickers will come September 12 at Richmond, where he claimed one of his series-best six poles in May before dropping to 15th at the finish. That broke a string of eight straight results of 24th or worse at the 0.75-mile short track.
For Busch, the key is Atlanta, where his finishes have been all over the map. He won the spring race there in 2008 and finished fifth last fall, before Atlanta was replaced in the Chase by California for the 2009 season. Before that, he ran 20th or worse in three straight races and finished 18th at the 1.5-mile track in the most recent race there, in March.
Complicating the issue will be Busch's quest for a Nationwide Series title. With Atlanta being a two-day show, Busch won't have much time to discuss strategy with Cup crew chief Steve Addington, given the time demands of practice in both series and a Nationwide race the night before.
“Atlanta, we have a little bit of work to do,” Busch said. “We weren't as good as we needed to be there this spring. There's not going to be any time for me to sit with Steve at all next week - or two weeks - in Atlanta. It's all a one-day show for Nationwide. I'm going to be running back and forth all over the place.