This weekend's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway could end with almost the full field for NASCAR's Chase For The Sprint Cup decided before the traditional regular season finale at Richmond.
Following last week's race at the Bristol short track five drivers have already clinched their place in The Chase – NASCAR's equivalent of American sports' Play-Offs – where 12 drivers compete to be crowned champion.
Points leader Kyle Busch – already a four time winner this season – has clinched his spot as have five time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Roush Ford duo Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon have both secured their places in The Chase by virtue of their wins acrrued over the course of the year – three and two respectively.
Under the new for 2011 system the drivers with the most wins who lie outside the top 10 in points will be granted Wild Card Chase entries. The pair’s wins guarantee him a Wild Card slot but lying fifth and sixth in points they only need a top-40 finish at Atlanta to lock themselves into the chase on merit of points.
That should leave the Wild Cards to Bristol winner Brad Keselowski – who also has three wins – and Denny Hamlin, though both could still find their way into The Chase on points with good finishes at Atlanta and Richmond – which happens to one of the which Joe Gibbs Racing driver Hamlin has dominated at in the past.
However, there are scenarios which could lock in the complete top ten after this weekend's race.
Alongside Harvick and Gordon Ryan Newman needs a top-20 finish while Kurt Busch – Kyle's older brother – will need a top-10 finish to make it two Buschs in the Chase.
Rounding out the top ten in points are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart – both have yet to win this season and are therefore vulnerable to missing The Chase should they be bumped by Keselowski, Hamlin or Clint Bowyer who lead those outside the top ten.
However, thanks to their points totals both Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart could take their own places in The Chase if results at Atlanta fall their way and give them the crucial 49 point lead over whoever ends the race eleventh in points.
The AdvoCare 500 is scheduled to start at 12:30am UK time (7:30pm Atlanta local time).