Dale Earnhardt Jr. is currently leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standing. He is one of three drivers with three wins this season. (Special Photo: Andrew Weber/USA Today Sports)
HAMPTON — It is getting down to crunch time on the NASCAR circuit as four races remain to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs.
Drivers only have four more opportunities to secure a win for a guaranteed spot in the Chase.
And Atlanta Motor Speedway figures to be a pivotal race for the drivers. The Oral-B 500 at the speedway during Labor Day weekend will offer drivers the next to last chance to qualify.
Following A.J. Allmendinger’s win last week at Watkins Glen, just four open slots remain for the Chase with four races to go before the field is set for the 10-race playoff.
A total of nine drivers who won a race last year have yet to win this season, including some highly talented drivers who will be fighting to get into the Chase.
“Winning races has unquestionably become critically important with the new Chase format,” Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark said in a statement. “Drivers are facing the prospect of not making their way in — and having a chance to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship — despite being higher in points than other drivers who would get in ahead of them because they have a race victory.”
If the Chase field were set this week, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer qualify for the Chase. Kenseth is third in the overall points standings and Newman is eighth. The 10th and 11th positions are filled out by Larson and Bowyer, respectively. That would mean that drivers failing to qualify for the Chase would include four drivers currently in the top 16 positions of the points standings — Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle and Marcos Ambrose.
Clark expects an exciting race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as positions remain up for grabs.
“An exciting all-or-nothing scenario is starting to build as Labor Day weekend gets closer, and it can only get more exciting from here,” Clark said.
Greg Biffle also realizes the importance of the next four weeks. Biffle sits in the 17th spot because he has yet to record a victory.
“We feel like we can win one of these last four races, so that’s what we’re focusing on is winning one of these last four and getting our way into the Chase that way,” Biffle said in a press conference. “But certainly we’re hanging on by a shoestring to make it in on points if it comes down to that.”
In other NASCAR news, Tony Stewart will miss his second straight race this weekend. Veteran Jeff Burton is subbing for Stewart at Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Steward skipped last weekend’s race at Watkins Glen in the wake of the death of Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car accident Saturday in Canandaigua, N.Y., which he was involved in.
Stewart’s status, including for the Oral-B 500, is still up in the air.
“Jeff will be the driver this weekend at Michigan,” Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said in a press conference. “We have not discussed any other races. We’ll talk to Tony, and when he’s ready to get in the car, he’ll be in there.”