Saturday evening's Bank of America 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m., ABC, preceded by NASCAR Countdown at 7 p.m.) marks the halfway point of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup title, and 20 points separate the top-eight drivers.
Under the current point system, that is a fairly large gap - 20 finishing positions - but with strategy playing such a big role in races of late, not to mention the fact that a race at Talladega Superspeedway still remains, it is hard to count anyone within half a race's worth of points out with six races still to be run.
Unfortunately, the Chase may already be done for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (43 points back of leader Carl Edwards), Jeff Gordon (47), and Ryan Newman (54). At 79 points out, Denny Hamlin is simply running research and development races, trying to make his Toyotas faster for the start of the 2012 season.
The eight drivers still in contention would be even tighter had Edwards and Kevin Harvick not rebounded from what looked to be miserable results at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. As it is, Edwards finished fifth to take a one-point lead on sixth-place finisher Harvick. Race winner and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is just four points back, while Brad Keselowski sits 11 markers off the pace. Matt Kenseth - the last driver to win a championship under the pre-Chase format in 2003 - is 12 points back of Edwards, his teammate at Roush-Fenway Racing.
Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart - who won the opening two rounds of the Chase but has fallen 19 points back after a miserable day in Dover and a terrible late-race stretch in Kansas - and Kyle Busch are all more than 15 points out of the lead and would likely need help in closing in on the leaders. The way the 2011 season has gone, though, it is not at all unreasonable to hold out hope for a little help to come their way.
With that in mind, the Sprint Cup Series heads home for the weekend. While the sanctioning body's offices are in Daytona, most of the Sprint Cup Series teams are based in the Charlotte area (only Stuart, VA-based Wood Brothers Racing and Denver, CO's Furniture Row Racing are exceptions). Furthermore, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and many media outlets are located there as well. With crew members and the majority of drivers that live in the general area sleeping in their own beds the night before the event, it is certainly fitting to refer to the Bank of America 500 as NASCAR's "homecoming."