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NASCAR At Pocono: Analyzing The Chase Hopefuls

Jimmie Johnson's win in the FedEx 400 all but guaranteed that he will make a run at his sixth championship this fall. With two wins, he is an almost certainty to at the very worst take one of the wild card spots. Johnson's gap of 53 points on 11th would take quite the collapse to overcome.

Kevin Harvick, second at Dover and seventh in the standings, doesn't have a win in 2012 but he has climbed to 40 points ahead of 11th. That gap can be erased in one race, but Harvick's hallmark consistency should allow him to be in the hunt come September.

In fact, the top seven drivers - Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., and Harvick - seem well on their way to being in the Chase. With that, we turn our attention to those on the bubble.

Tony Stewart's Dover day effectively lasted nine laps, and Kyle Busch's engine blew at halfway. Both drivers should have taken a hit in the Chase standings, but they wound up only flip-flopping positions. Stewart climbed to seventh, seven points to the good, while Busch dropped to eighth and six points ahead of 11th.

That is because the big loser of the day was Carl Edwards. The Roush-Fenway Racing driver was running in the top-five and climbing towards the front of the field when he blew a right front tire and slapped the wall. Edwards lost two spots in the standings, dropping from 10th to 12th. Without a victory, last year's championship runner up is effectively outside the Chase with 13 races left before Richmond.

Displacing Edwards was Clint Bowyer, who claimed his first top-five finish since Bristol and jumped two places into 10th. Bowyer joined his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., currently sixth in the standings, in the provisional Chase field. After not placing a single car in the Chase in its five-year existence, Waltrip's team seems almost certain to at least have one driver and possibly both of its full-time drivers racing for the title this season. Bowyer holds a five-point edge on Brad Keselowski - sure to make the Chase with his two wins this season - and 15 points on Edwards.

Jeff Gordon seemed well on his way to breaking through with his first win of 2012, but a loose wheel left him 13th. Instead of jumping into the top-20 in points, Gordon gained just one spot to 21st. Worse, he remains winless, and at 94 points out of 10th place, his only hope to make the Chase is the Wild Card. The saving grace for the 24 team has been its speed, as Gordon has been a contender most of the year before being felled by bad luck. It is well within reason to think that the four-time champion can and will win at least two and possibly three races between now and Richmond.

As things stand, Keselowski and Ryan Newman hold the wild card spots. Newman has to get going, however, as red-hot Kasey Kahne is just one point behind him.

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