Sunday's FedEx 400 marks the 13th-race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Season. It will also leave 13 races remaining in the "Race to the Chase," with the series' playoff field being set in race 26 at Richmond International Raceway in September.
For the rest of the "regular season" SB Nation Atlanta will take a look at the Chase hopefuls and rate their performance from week to week. It is a picture that figures to evolve every week, with a restrictor plate race at Daytona and a pair of road course events - not to mention the general nature of auto racing - standing between now and then.
As a refresher for old fans and a lesson for the new ones, the criteria for making the Chase is quite simple. The top-10 drivers in the point standings at the conclusion of the Richmond race are automatically locked in. The final two "wildcard" spots go to the drivers with the most victories between positions 11 and 20 in the standings. Top-10 drivers are seeded with the same number of points, with three bonus points for each victory claimed during the regular season. The wild card drivers begin the Chase 11th and 12th, with no bonus points regardless of how many wins they have.
Got it? Good.
Heading to Dover, Roush-Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth stand atop the point standings. Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin is ranked third. In addition to showing the necessary consistency to be at the head of the field at this stage of the season, all three have scored wins already this season, one each for Biffle and Kenseth and two for Hamlin.
Three other drivers in the top-10 - Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Tony Stewart (another two-time winner) - have also been to victory lane this year. Three drivers from positions 11-20 have won a race this season: Brad Keselowski (the third two-time winner), Ryan Newman, and the most-recent Sprint Cup race winner Kasey Kahne.
As it stands right now, this would be the look of the Chase at its open in September at the Chicagoland Speedway:
T1. Denny Hamlin
T1. Tony Stewart
T3. Greg Biffle
T3. Matt Kenseth
T3. Jimmie Johnson
T3. Kyle Busch
T7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
T7. Martin Truex Jr.
T7. Kevin Harvick
T7. Carl Edwards
WC: Brad Keselowski
WC: Ryan Newman
Based off their performance to date this season and historical performance in the 13 races remaining between now and Richmond, those twelve seem like solid bets to be racing for the title come September. It would be next to impossible for Hamlin, Stewart, and Keselowski to miss the Chase at this point with their two victories apiece. Biffle and Kenseth likewise should be set for a playoff run.
Though he has not won a race since June 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been rock-steady in 2012, the only driver to complete every lap of the opening 12 races of the season. If he maintains anywhere near his performance, there's little to no reason for him to miss the Chase.
Carl Edwards is most at risk right now, having yet to win a race this year - and having zero wins since last March. Just four points separate him from Keselowski in 11th. The 12th-placed driver, Clint Bowyer, has been solid at times in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing. Should Edwards fail to pick up his pace - and/or not win between now and Richmond - it is conceivable that Bowyer could displace him with more strong runs.
Kahne has just the one victory thus far, but considering his performance in recent weeks after an absolutely miserable start, he will probably pad his win total and at least make the Chase via the Wild Card. At 42 points behind Edwards for 10th-place, it would be difficult but not impossible for him to be a top-10 driver and make use of the hard-earned bonus points that come with winning a race.
One driver - and I can't believe I'm typing this sentence - that appears headed for a career-worst season with no playoff hopes is NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. He sits 22nd in points with no victories and just one top-five finish. He is 93 points behind Edwards, making multiple trips to victory lane paramount for his hopes of making a "Drive for Five." History is at work both against and for Gordon. One one hand, he has four wins over the last four seasons - three of those coming in 2011- and went winless in both even-numbered years in that span. On the other, Gordon is a proven winner at nearly every track; only Homestead, which hosts the season finale, and Kentucky (which joined the schedule last year) has never seen the No. 24 Chevrolet in its victory lane.
Matt Kenseth's 2005 performance, where he came from 24th in the standings after 14 races to make the Chase with room to spare (eighth out of the then-ten driver field), along with the fact that Gordon is an 85-time race winner and four-time champion provide reason to believe he could turn in a run for the ages to find his way into the playoffs. The odds are stacked heavily against him, however.