Only two races remain before the Chase field is set. Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, who sit in 13th and 14th place, will be pushing 12th-place Matt Kenseth hard for the final spot in Atlanta and Richmond over the next two weekends.
So which of these outsiders has the advantage?
This weekend Vickers returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he made his Cup debut in 2003, and has performed well throughout his career. In 12 series starts there he has finished in the top 10 five times. His first top-5 Atlanta finish occurred in March.
Vickers is not as strong at Richmond’s short track. In the 11 times he has raced in the track’s 400-lap features, he has one top-10 finish. He has, however, earned two poles there.
Don’t bet the farm on a Vickers victory at either track. In 8,300 laps driven at Atlanta and Richmond, he has led a total of 59.
Kyle Busch has flexed more muscle at both raceways. At Atlanta, Busch has been out front more than Vickers, but he lacks his rival’s consistency. Busch has two top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the Georgia oval. One of those was a win. Busch has paced 254 laps there in his short career.
Examining Busch’s career at Richmond indicates he should be a favorite to win there. Nine starts have yielded seven top-10 finishes, including a victory. His lap led total stands at 398.
With both teams trying to muscle their way into a Chase spot, I would give the edge in Atlanta to Vickers. Busch might be fast, but look for No. 83 to be strong when the checkered flag waves. Busch, meanwhile, clearly has the stats to back up picking him as a favorite at Richmond.
So what about the Chase? Who will be in and who will be out?
Busch’s new attitude will serve him well as the pressure mounts. The same determination that saw him drive towards so many victories also has cost him wins. His raw talent, harnessed and controlled, could spell trouble for the rest of the field. Last year we witnessed a Busch collapse when the Chase season began; this year, be prepared for an uprising.
My prediction: Busch makes his way into the Chase and Vickers falls short. Kenseth will lose his hold on a top 12 position and will be bumped from NASCAR’s playoff.
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)