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Sprint Cup Chase heats up
Things are about the get real intense in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and it won't necessarily be with the top drivers, but rather the handful of lesser-knowns trying to make this year's Chase.
 
The race to the Chase has four events remaining until NASCAR's version of the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 18, and for the drivers that haven't qualified yet we're going to see some interesting strategy along the way.

Only 12 drivers have made themselves automatic qualifiers with a win on the season, but one of them -- rookie Chris Buescher -- is three points out of the 30th position in points which makes him ineligible to qualify at the moment.

So what we're looking at during NASCAR's final off weekend of the season -- they race next week at Bristol -- is 10 drivers with no wins on the season that are fighting for the final five Chase positions and they're all within 87 points of each other. It's going to be a mad dash, and if Buescher can make up those three points, because of his win, only four spots would be available for those 10 drivers. It's probably the best thing about the Chase.

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Let's just call the next four weeks the Wild Card round.
  
Now to give an idea of how small of a number like 87 points are, consider that Denny Hamlin gathered 44 points for his win Sunday at Watkins Glen and Jimmie Johnson collected just one point for finishing dead last. These drivers can be shuffled around quickly, but the surest way to to collect them is by staying out of trouble and finishing well.
 
Easier said than done.
 
On Sunday, Kyle Larson had a top-five finish coming to him and on the last lap when A.J. Allmendinger spun him out. Instead of getting 37 points for finishing fourth, he got only 12 points for finishing 29th. Larson is currently holding the 16th and final position, eight points ahead of Trevor Bayne. He's really pissed off, too.
 
"We were about a 10th-place car and we were going to get a top-five day out of it," Larson said Sunday. "We were running sixth coming to (Turn) 7; the No. 47 (Allmendinger) was behind me. He is always aggressive. I figured he would be smart.
 
"Obviously, the No. 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) was spinning in front of us. That is a free spot for both of us and he just dumped me. He had already ran me down to the front stretch wall once with about 15 to go or so. Pretty dumb move right there, too, but I was the smarter one racing for points, lifted, could have wrecked him, but didn't. It just sucks they are going to have to start building some more race cars because he has got a few coming," he said.
 
Larson being upset isn't just about the situation he described, but also about making the Chase, which if he doesn't those lost points at Watkins Glen are going to looked at as a primary reason. Larson obviously has payback on his mind, but he's also got to play it smart to make the postseason. The Larson-Allmendinger angle is going to be awesome to watch unfold at Bristol.

Of the 10 contenders racing for the Chase, there are probably only two drivers that have a legitimate shot of winning and getting the automatic birth between Bristol, Michigan, Darlington and Richmond. Larson is one of them -- he's running extremely well in his last three -- and the other is Chase Elliott -- 41 points ahead of Larson, who has been struggling the past six weeks. The other eight drivers have to points race as best as possible and finish well in all four races.
 
Meanwhile the 11 drivers with wins -- not including Buescher -- can all comfortably race for the win. They don't have any consequences for poor finishes. Some drivers like Hamlin are using these final races as a practice to prepare themselves for the Chase.

Kevin Harvick's team started treated the past three races as a Chase simulator to get acclimated to the pressure of finishing well weekly -- they failed Sunday finishing 32nd. Others like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski just want to win and are going all out to do so, which is something to keep in mind when wagering these next four races. 
 
Just a refresher of how the actual Chase works: 16 drivers qualify and the final 10 races are broken into four elimination stages. Four drivers are eliminated after the first three races, four more get axed over the next three and then the Final Four is set after the next three. Whoever finishes the best in the season finale at Homestead win the Championship.
  
The intensity picks up next week with several races within the race and differing agendas. To get started on your Bristol handicapping, refer to the April Bristol race won by Carl Edwards and also the results from May at Dover, another concrete high-banked layout, albeit a half-mile larger in distance. Matt Kenseth won that race making the two most applicable reference points won by Joe Gibbs Racing. What a surprise, they've only won 11 of the 22 race this season between five cars. And they just might win the Sprint Cup for the second consecutive year as well.
 
Here's a look at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook updated 2016 Sprint Cup odds with opening odds in parenthesis if any changes:

Kevin Harvick (5/1) 7/1
Joey Logano (7/1) 8/1
Kyle Busch (7/1) 6/1
Jimmie Johnson 7/1
Brad Keselowski 8/1
Matt Kenseth 8/1
Carl Edwards (12/1) 8/1
Denny Hamlin 12/1
Kurt Busch 12/1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15/1) 60/1
Martin Truex Jr. (15/1) 8/1
Kasey Kahne (25/1) 100/1
Kyle Larson 30/1
Tony Stewart (30/1) 15/1
Ryan Blaney (40/1) 100/1
Chase Elliott (40/1) 20/1
Ryan Newman (40/1) 100/1
Clint Bowyer (40/1) 500/1
Jamie McMurray (40/1) 100/1
Greg Biffle 100/1
Austin Dillon (100/1) 50/1
Paul Menard (100/1) 500/1
Aric Almirola (100/1) 500/1
A.J. Allmendinger (300/1) 500/1
Trevor Bayne (300/1) 500/1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (300/1) 500/1
Danica Patrick 500/1
Field (All Others) (100/1) 500/1

Odds Subject to Change - Updated 8.9.16

  
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