The top 12 drivers in points qualify for the Chase. And though the current eight points leaders look comfortably eligible -- starting with first-place Tony Stewart, who clinched a berth Sunday -- a fierce battle remains among seven or eight other drivers to make the late-season playoff.
They include Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, who finished 15th on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway to remain ninth in points.
"It wasn't an ideal day by any means," Newman said but added, "We're not going to get down, and we're going to fight for a spot in the Chase for the championship."
The three races left in NASCAR's "regular season": Bristol, Tenn., on Saturday night, then Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 6 and, finally, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Sept. 12.
The Chase gets underway Sept. 20 at New Hampshire International Speedway, and the playoff, which includes the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 11, ends in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 22.
The current top 12 drivers include several who were expected to vie for the title when the season started.
They include four-time champion Jeff Gordon (currently second in points); Jimmie Johnson (third), the reigning and three-time champion and Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports; and Carl Edwards (fourth) of Roush Fenway Racing.
But there also are surprises, starting with Stewart, a two-time champion who left the comfort of Joe Gibbs Racing and this year took over as an owner-driver of his team. In spite of predictions that Stewart, 38, would struggle with his newly branded Stewart-Haas Racing, he has won three times in his No. 14 Chevrolet and holds a commanding 284-point lead over Gordon.
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