Only two races remain - Atlanta and Richmond - before NASCAR Sprint Cup arrives at the crucial Chase cut-off, which sees 12 drivers separated out for the final battle of the 2011 Cup championship title. For the top drivers in the series, this is the first big moment they've been waiting for: making the cut is a huge affirmation of their performance to date.
Missing out, on the other hand, can be a huge blow - the kind of disappointment that causes people in teams to be ousted from their jobs. Even drivers.
Making the Chase involves finishing the 'regular season' of the first 26 races of the year in the top ten on points. Added to that are two wildcard entries for the top two drivers in positions 11 through 20 based on the number of wins so far in 2011, a new innovation introduced only this year which has certainly enlivened the Race for the Chase.
was the first to be confirmed through to the Chase, being a lock after his win at Michigan last week. This week's 14th place at Bristol - a disappointment for Kyle on his favourite track - was enough to confirm that his Chase place would be based on points and not have to rely on a wins wildcard (his four wins the best tally of any driver so far this year.) He's currently tied for the lead in the Cup points with Jimmie Johnson and looking like one of the strongest contenders for the championship - although he's been in that position before, in 2008, only to then collapse in the Chase itself and never feature in the title battle.
Joining Busch in clinching a Chase place after Bristol are Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who now cannot be knocked out of the top ten points positions before the cut-off. Kevin Harvick is also through to the Chase, one way or the other, and Jeff Gordon was also belatedly confirmed as a lock after NASCAR confirmed there was no way he could miss out on either points or wins wildcard.
s inclusion won't surprise anyone: the five-times Cup champion has made the Chase every year since the post-result season format was introduced. He's got it down to a fine art, as well: never particularly dazzling through the main part of the season, he nonetheless is a model of consistency which is exactly what works best in the Chase's ten-race shootout. Still, onlookers have noticed that Johnson seems more rattled by the closer competition this year than in the past - his recent post-race blow-up with Kurt Busch being one example - and doesn't seem to have things to his liking this year as he has in the past.
locks into the Chase after a strong showing at Bristol. He's another driver who rarely seems to attract much attention during the regular season, but he's won two races (Texas and Dover in the first half of the year) and seems to be growing in confidence and consistency as the Chase approaches. In other words, as far as Chase preparations go, Kenseth is playing it pretty much perfectly.
is also through, but his season is going in the wrong direction compared with the likes of Busch and Kenseth. He led the Cup points for a long time going into the summer, but his form has trailed off somewhat as the year has gone on. Some put that down to the distraction of uncertainty around his re-signing with Roush Fenway Racing, but now the deal is done it doesn't seem to have rebooted his fortunes and the team as a whole seem to have gone off the boil. Like Johnson, Edwards has only one win this season.
At least Edwards and Roush Fenway are having a better time of it than Kevin Harvick
at Richard Childress Racing, which seems a bit of an unhappy camp at the moment. Last week the team fired their popular pit crew coach Matt Clark after problems in pit lane, while last month the well-respected crew chief of Jeff Burton's #31 car, Todd Berrier, was also shown the door.