TORONTO - With only races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond Speedway left on the regular season NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, the Chase for the Championship picture is still pretty much murky.
What is clear is that after their finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Saturday night Kyle Busch, in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and teammate Carl Edwards in the No. 99 Ford, are all guaranteed spots among the dozen drivers who will compete for the Sprint Cup starting at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 18.
The remaining seven spots will be won or lost over the next two weeks.
Kevin Harvick, with his three wins in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, is also a virtual lock to at least clinch a wild-card spot but there are too many other permutations to give it to him while the battle for berths still rages around him.
The new “wild card” system rewards two drivers outside the Top 10 — but inside the Top 20 — who have the most victories.
However, unlike the top 10 drivers, once the Chase starts the wild cards will not get bonus points for regular season wins.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, by virtue of his two wins in the No. 24 HNS Chevrolet, Kurt Busch with his one win in the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge and Ryan Newman in the No. 39 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, with his one win, are reasonably sure bets to be among the top 10 after Richmond.
Where all this leaves NASCAR’s poster boy — Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 HMS Chevrolet — is ninth among the top 10 after his 16th-place result at Bristol.
Although he is 18 points in front of Tony Stewart, who holds down the 10th spot in the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet, and 39 points ahead of the No. 2 Penske Dodge of Brad Keselowski in 11th spot, Earnhardt has not visited Victory Lane once this season.
So if he should fall out of the Top 10 with bad finishes at Atlanta or Richmond, his season would be toast.
A similar scenario plays out for Stewart, who also is winless so far in 2011.
But Earnhardt remains confident that he will be in the Chase at Chicagoland.
“We put a little distance between us and (Stewart) who is in the same situation we are,” Earnhardt told SceneDaily.com this week.
Earnhardt lamented, however, that he couldn’t do better than 16th at Bristol.
“We just weren’t fast,” he said. “If I caught anybody and passed them it was because they were just worse off than I was. I was just hanging on all night, trying not to lose much.”
Even though Bruno Senna made a rookie mistake in the first turn at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps by sliding into Jamie Alguersuari, Lotus/Renault boss Eric Boullier was effusive in praise for Aryton Senna’s 26-year-old nephew in his first Formula One race this season. “I was more than happy to see all my people in the garage applauding with a smile on their face,” Boullier said. “It was the first time that had happened since Malaysia.” ... Before Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe finished 1-2-3 at Infineon Raceway on Sunday, the last time a there was a Penske Racing sweep of the podium was when Toronto’s Paul Tracy won at Nazareth Raceway in 1994 with teammates Al Unser Jr. second and Emerson Fittipaldi third ... Thanks in part to his fifth-place finish at Edmonton in July, British driver Oliver Webb will get two more chances to win in the Firestone Indy Lights circuit with Canada’s Jensen MotorSport team. Webb will be in the cockpit for the Baltimore Grand Prix this weekend and at Las Vegas for the season finale ... Rumour has it that KV Racing Technology will go with Chevrolet engines in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. That will mean an end to the Lotus sponsorship money for the squad that had Tony Kanaan, EJ Viso and Takuma Sato behind the steering wheels this season.
In the IZOD IndyCar Series this past week it was one step forward and two steps back for the embattled open wheel racing sanctioning body.
First off it lost a big star with Danica Patrick’s jump to NASCAR, but series boss Randy Bernard reacted quickly and well by wishing her good luck with the hope that her fans would come to the next four IndyCar events to give her a great bon voyage, so to speak.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that Bernard not only did not fire chief steward Brian Bernhart in the aftermath of his embarrassing gaffe at New Hampshire week earlier when he re-started a race in a downpour, but gave him a vote of confidence.
“I want to make it very clear. I’m 100% supportive of Brian Bernhart,” he said at Infineon Raceway Sunday.
This was even when driver after driver went public with their view that Bernhart was not only incompetent, but dangerously so.
“I won’t disagree with that but the drivers, their job is to race and to do what they get paid to do,” Bernard said in dismissing their concerns.
He should have figured out by now that the drivers, not the race officials, are the stars on the show.
The big bucks stop in Montreal
There are 87,550 reasons why NASCAR won’t be moving the NAPA 200 from Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal next season.
That — $87,550 US — is what winning at Montreal meant to Marcos Ambrose.
It is the biggest payout for a race win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series outside of the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway.
By way of comparison Kyle Busch’s take for winning the Food City 250 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday was just $46,575.
In fact Alex Tagliani’s $54,975 payout for finishing second at Montreal dwarfed the Bristol money Busch won.
So any talk of not having the NAPA 200 back in Montreal in 2012 would certainly be met with some fierce opposition from drivers who really like the pay day they get for coming up north.
Button seeking new deal with McLaren
Formula One McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh has a decision to make before the end of the current racing calendar: Keep Jenson Button or look for a new second driver to Lewis Hamilton.
Button, in reality, has made it easy for Whitmarsh in that he has done everything asked of him at the British-based team.
His status as a world champion and mentor to the younger Hamilton makes him a valuable employee. And Button has not threatened to take his talents elsewhere.
In fact on Monday of this week, at a team promotional appearance he said he was happy to stay at McLaren and was only waiting for Whitmarsh to forward him an offer sheet.
“I want to stay here next year, so hopefully I’ll be here next year,” Button said. “I’m just waiting for the team to pick up the option.”
An 11-year veteran of the F-1 wars, Button said that so far — even as the end of the season approaches — he has not had any talks about a new deal.
“It’s up to the team as to when they approach me, but for me I’m the happiest I’ve been with the car,” he said. “The car I really like and the direction we’ve taken with the car.”
Button currently sits fourth in the world championship, with a pair of wins, and a better record than his teammate at McLaren.
Button also said that at this stage of his career he is starting to look ahead at life after F1.
“I was speaking to Jessie, my girlfriend, about it,” he added. “Basically it’s very difficult to find somewhere that you call home because you’re always travelling. You never feel you’re in one place for a long time.”
Button did, however, say he is not considering retirement any time soon.