Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Kyle Larson are playing a high stakes musical chairs game of sorts. At the moment, Bowyer and Biffle sit in the final two seats to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with Larson standing on the outside looking in at 17th on the current Chase Grid.
All three drivers need a victory to assure themselves spots in the Chase – and avoid being bumped down from their respective perches with a win by a competitor currently ranked lower.
With the music still playing a mere two races left before NASCAR’s postseason, it’s not necessarily a win or go home situation, but it’s close to it.
Entering this Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta (7:30 p.m. on ESPN), Larson trails Biffle by a hefty 26 points for the final seed on the grid, while Biffle looms only five points behind Bowyer for the minimal breathing room afforded by the 15th spot.
“I hope we can go there and get a win and stop worrying about points,” Larson said. “I think 26 behind Biffle is a long way to go for two races. Hope for some bad luck for him, but we will see.”
The last two races, Larson has been plagued by some of the bad luck he wished on Biffle. The 22-year-old – attempting to become the second rookie to ever qualify for the Chase – finished 43rd at Michigan after a wreck and managed an impressive 12th-place finish at Bristol after starting the field from the rear after crashing his primary car in qualifying.
Potential good news for Biffle and Bowyer? Many of the recent winners at Atlanta have already locked up a Chase spot – and are favorites heading into the weekend. A repeat winner this weekend would guarantee that at least three winless drivers earn a spot on the Chase Grid.
Although they’re in comfortable, yet not reassuring situations, Biffle and Bowyer still both feel they need wins.
“You take chances, make passes, do all the things you can do,” said Biffle prior to Bristol. “But at the same time, we know we’re on the bubble in points. I feel it’s going to take a win still to get in this thing, and that’s what we’re going for.”
Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, spoke about the team in advance of Bristol, emphasizing racing to win, but also mentioning not taking reckless chances.
“We go to the track every weekend looking to win,” he said. “That doesn’t change. But we’re not going to be stupid. If we have a chance to win we will go for it, of course, but we aren’t going to do something to jeopardize a good finish. We just need to stay focused on what we need to do to get a finish and if a win is in reach we will go for it.”
For the winless drivers, here are the clinch scenarios for Atlanta:
If there is a repeat winner, the top-three winless drivers would clinch if they are at least 45 points ahead of the fourth highest winless driver.
If there is a new winner at Atlanta, two winless drivers remain guaranteed to make the Chase. In this scenario, the new winner would clinch, if he/she finishes the race at least 49 points ahead of 31st. The top-two winless drivers would clinch if they are at least 45 points ahead of the third-highest winless driver.
Matt Kenseth controls his own destiny. A seventh-place finish locks him in no matter who wins at Atlanta.