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Sprint Cup - Clock Ticks Down To The Chase

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Daytona, August 25, 2011: Only three races remain in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ 26-race regular season, and little has been decided in terms of championship hopefuls.

Here’s what we know right now: Kyle Busch is locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. That’s it.

Busch clinched a spot with his win at Michigan, thereby nabbing at least one of the two Wild Card spots in the 12-driver Chase. It’s likely he’ll soon clinch a top-10 spot, probably this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. After race No. 26 at Richmond, the top-10 drivers in points set a portion of the 12-driver Chase field. Spots 11 and 12 go to those drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. Busch’s Michigan victory was his series-leading fourth of 2011.

But get ready to have some light shed on the championship picture at Bristol, the perfect stage for a Chase-clarifying bout.

Here’s what we might know after Saturday night’s annual fan-favorite IRWIN Tools Night Race: Seven more drivers could join Busch in the Chase.

The “magic number” for a clinching driver after Bristol is 97. Any driver 97 points ahead of 11th place will clinch a spot in the Chase.

These drivers can mathematically clinch this weekend: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

Only Busch and Johnson “control their own destiny” in terms of clinching a top-10 spot; the others need some help in the way of lower-positioned drivers having a low finish. Since Busch would hold the tie-breaker over current 11th-place Clint Bowyer (wins, then seconds, then thirds, etc), his magic number is actually 96. He can clinch a top-10 spot this weekend by finishing at least 29th; or 30th with at least one lap led; or 31st with the most laps led. Johnson, who does not currently hold the tie-breaker, can clinch a top-10 spot by finishing at least 18th; 19th and at least one lap led; or 20th with the most laps led.

And finally, these drivers will lock up at least a Wild Card spot by winning this weekend: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.

In other words, this Saturday night’s race is bigger than usual. And it’s usually massive.

Bristol’s annual night race combines history – this is the track’s 50th anniversary – with modern-day spectacle. Add to it some of the intriguing storylines, the drama escalates exponentially. A few angles to watch…

Wild Card Watch: Brad Keselowski (see page 2) and Denny Hamlin remain in spots one and two in the Wild Card hunt. While Keselowski has averaged a second-place finish in the last three races, Hamlin has faltered. Over the last four races – where Hamlin has an average finish of 28.3 – Hamlin has dropped from 10th to 14th in the points. Others with a win inside the top 20: Paul Menard in 18th and David Ragan in 20th. Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith also have victories, but are outside the top 20.

Sprint Summer Showdown Presented by HTC EVO 3D: Bristol is the final race for drivers to become eligible for the $3 million bonus at Atlanta. For more on the program and the favorites, see story on page 2.

Busch Brothers Battle: A race-within-a-race, the Busch brothers have two juicy sibling rivalry subplots. Kyle’s win at Michigan was his 23rd career victory, which matched older brother Kurt. The two are also tied on the Bristol wins list, with five apiece. Kurt, Kyle and Jeff Gordon own the most wins among active drivers at Bristol.