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NASCAR At Michigan: Race To The Chase Looms Large As Cutoff Nears

Can a driver on the outside looking in steal a win in his bid for a wild-card spot, or will one of the drivers already in the Chase try to pick up three precious bonus points with another triumph?

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This weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at the Michigan International Speedway could be a significant event in the race to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With just four races remaining to the field is set for the 2011 championship fight, the battle to get into the playoff and solidify one's position has reached fever-pitch.

A long, wide, sweeping track that lends itself to lengthy stretches of green-flag racing and late-race strategy plays, Michigan is the prime track for a driver and team looking to score a win and get themselves in position for one of the Chase wild card spots to perhaps steal a win on fuel mileage. It could make an afternoon at a track that doesn't exactly invoke the most exciting of racing memories one to remember.

Prime candidates to roll the dice include Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard. Bowyer is currently 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, 25 behind 10th-placed Tony Stewart. Without a win, however, he is on the outside looking in as far as the Chase goes, thanks to Brad Keselowski's two wins and Denny Hamlin's triumph here in June.

Menard, meanwhile, needs another win to leap-frog Hamlin for the second wild card spot, especially in the aftermath of his crash at Watkins Glen Monday.

While there are drivers that need to win just to get into the Chase, drivers who are effectively locked in might gamble on a victory in order to potentially gain three bonus points for the Chase re-seed after Richmond. Currently, with three wins apiece, archrivals Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch lead the way with nine bonus points each. Two-time winners Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and Michigan native Keselowski have six, though Keselowski is far from a Chase lock with four races remaining. A win at his home track - where he has won in Nationwide competition the last two years - would clinch his spot.

Caught in the middle are drivers like Stewart, who need a victory to solidify their spot in the Chase and give them some bonus points of their own. At the same time, Stewart can't afford a bad finish - especially following his last-lap wreck at Watkins Glen - that could cost him a significant chunk of his 25-point edge on Bowyer.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.