With no NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this weekend, it seems a good time to take a look at the remaining races on the "regular season" schedule and the prospects for the drivers looking to compete for the series championship this fall.
There are seven races left before the Chase, beginning with next weekend's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One can safely assume that most of the drivers already in the top-10 in the standings will be there when the checkered flag waves over the Federated Parts 400 at Richmond and the first 26 races of the year. As it stands, 10th-place Brad Keselowski - winner of three races - holds a 46-point edge on Carl Edwards. Now, were Edwards to lead the most laps at Indy and take the checkered flag while Keselowski finished dead last in the 43-car field, Carl would squeak past Brad by a single, solitary marker, so it isn't as though Edwards and the drivers behind him have no chance of climbing their way into the top-10.
It becomes increasingly likely with each passing race, however, that one of the two wild card positions will be their only hope of battling for the championship.
As things stand, Kasey Kahne's win at Loudon has him sitting in the top seat for a wild-card standings both in victories - he is the lone driver outside the top-10 with multiple race wins in 2012 - and in the actual point standings. The other drivers outside the top-10 with triumphs this year are Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano. Busch holds a nine-point edge on Newman for 13th in the standings, while Logano is 12 points back.
Of course, seven races means seven opportunities for those drivers - and the others sitting outside the Chase field - to grab a win. Edwards and Jeff Gordon would seem the likeliest threats to the drivers with victories thus far, though Edwards has not come close to winning in 2012 and Gordon has been beset by the worst run of bad luck in his 20-year career.
Had Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya won at Sonoma in June, either one of them could have shaken things up. The two are already considered the favorites on the road course at Watkins Glen, and those two wins would've almost certainly gotten them into the Chase. As it is, given their position in the points, either driver would have to win at least one other race - all on ovals - or else finish right at the front in every remaining event. Ambrose showed flashes of speed on ovals in May and early June but has regressed badly of late. Montoya, meanwhile, can look to Indianapolis where he dominated in 2009 and 2010 but lost both times as a potential opportunity to take the checkered flag.
Paul Menard, the defending Brickyard champ, is an example of what we could see in these remaining seven races. With all due respect to Menard, crew chief Slugger Labbe, and his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team, they were not going to win the Brickyard 400 last year before slowing well off the pace to stretch their fuel tank and edging out a hard charging Gordon.
That kind of strategy seems almost certain to prevail at most of the remaining races if the circumstances permit. At Atlanta, where the rough surface wears the tires out over the course of a run, a driver on four fresh Goodyear Eagles would most likely be able to run down a driver running a slower pace on bald rubber.
Aside from the Advocare 500 - the penultimate race in the regular season - however, fans can be certain there will be at least one race - probably at Pocono or Michigan - where such strategy will come into play as a crew chief attempts a Hail Mary to get his team into position to make the Chase.
The wrench in this whole deal is the fact that the drivers trying to make the Chase will be battling for wins with the guys already solidly in position to make the 10-race playoff. To think the top-10 drivers - Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Keselowski - will combine for an 0-fer these next seven weeks is nothing short of asinine. They're racing for bonus points towards the start of the Chase, a trio per victory. After a season where the championship fight ended in a tiebreaker, those three points and the race wins necessary to obtain them could be critical.
Stewart and Keselowski are in the best spot, with nine points each for their three wins. Hamlin and Johnson have six points, while Kenseth, Earnhardt, Biffle, and Bowyer have three. Harvick and Truex have both been shut out of victory lane thus far, but so was Stewart before his five-for-ten romp in the Chase that netted his third championship in 2011.
The fact of the matter is that these last seven events promise an intriguing and fluid story that only big time stock car racing can provide. Thank goodness we have this off-weekend to ready ourselves for the weeks to come.