With seven races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, we take a look at the top 12 in points:
1. Tony Stewart (2,884 points)
How he got here: Stewart, in his first season as owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, is far exceeding everyone’s expectations. He has a series best 7.6 average finish in 19 races as the driver of No. 14 Chevy, and his two wins (Pocono, Daytona) are complimented by a 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, both series highs.
Career stats at Indianapolis: Two victories, four top-fives, six top-10 finishes, 9.1 average finish in 10 starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: As an Indiana native who cherishes the Indy mystique, Stewart always puts extra emphasis on this race. Stewart is a lock for the Chase; a win or top-five finish here would further boost his momentum and solidify his title chances.
2. Jeff Gordon (2,709 points, -175)
How he got here: Gordon was the Sprint Cup points leader before Stewart took over that role at Dover in June. The four-time champion has almost mirrored Stewart’s stats with one win (Texas), 10 top-five finishes, 13 top-10 results and an average finish of 10.2. Gordon hasn’t been out of the top-2 in points since Week 2.
Career stats at Indianapolis: Four wins, nine top-fives, 12 top-10 finishes, 8.6 average finish in 15 starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Gordon owns the Cup Series record for wins at Indy and his Hendrick Motorsports team is likely primed to help him win another one on Sunday. With five top-10 finishes in his past six races this summer, momentum is on Gordon’s side as the Chase looms.
3. Jimmie Johnson (2,672 points, -212)
How he got here: After a slow start to the season, Johnson broke into the Chase picture after race No. 5 in Bristol and has been a top-12 fixture since. The three-time defending Cup champion has seven top-10 finishes in the last nine races, including one win.
Career stats at Indianapolis: Two victories, two top-fives, three top-10 finishes, average finish of 20.3 in seven starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Indianapolis has been sweat and sour for Johnson through the years. If he’s not winning, he’s suffering an engine failure or wrecking his No. 48 Chevy. The 2008 race winner needs to avoid trouble and maintain his recent hot streak to shine again in the Chase.
4. Kurt Busch (2,526 points, -358)
How he got here: Busch’s season has been populated by more highs (one win, 10 top-10s) than lows, but he hasn’t been able to put together a really consistent stretch. He grabbed the points lead after a sixth-place result at Talladega in late April, but quickly relinquished it after three finishes outside the top 10.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, three top-10 finishes, 18.0 average finish in eight starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Busch’s best career finish at Indy is fifth in his first start way back in 2001. He finished 40th at the 2.5-mile flat oval last season. His No. 2 Dodge has been stout on larger tracks this year, and Busch’s team will be motivated to give team owner Roger Penske an Indianapolis sweep following Helio Castroneves’ Indy 500 win in May.
5. Denny Hamlin (2,457 points, -427)
How he got here: Since breaking into the Chase picture after race No. 5 at Bristol, Hamlin has fluctuated somewhat wildly between fifth and 12th and back again. His erratic season has produced no wins and only eight top-10 results in 19 starts. He can’t afford to find more trouble, especially next week when the series returns to Pocono, where Hamlin finished a frustrating season-worst 38th in June.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, two top-10 finishes, 11.7 average finish in three starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Hamlin has finished all but one lap in his three tries at Indy. He and his No. 11 Toyota crew need to be really focused and perhaps take a few risks this weekend to build momentum for August.
6. Carl Edwards (2,438 points, -446)
How he got here: The media’s preseason pick to win the 2009 Sprint Cup title hasn’t won a race this season, but he’s been consistent enough (five top-fives, nine top-10s) to remain in the top 12 since race No. 2. By this time last season, Edwards had three of his series-high nine wins, and was fourth in the standings. He’s yet to hit his stride in ’09.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, two top-10 finishes, 10.2 average finish in four starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: A win on Sunday would help propel Edwards and his No. 99 Ford team back into the spotlight, and it might light a much-needed fire under the whole Roush Fenway Racing bunch, which has gone winless since Matt Kenseth’s two victories to begin the season.
7. Ryan Newman (2,385 points, -499)
How he got here: Newman got off to an awful start in his first season in the No. 39 Chevy at Stewart-Haas Racing. Finishes of 36th, 28th, 25th and 22nd found Newman in 32nd place after four races. However, a third-place finish at Talladega in April started Newman off on a hot streak that saw him reel off six consecutive top-10 finishes and climb as high as fourth in the standings.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, one top-10 finish, 22.4 average finish in eight starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Newman, who like teammate Tony Stewart hails from Indiana, hasn’t found any kind of magic at IMS. His best finish is fourth back in 2002. A sixth-place finish two weeks ago at Chicagoland might mean Newman is ready for another run of top-10 finishes. He’ll need it to make his first Chase since 2005.
8. Kasey Kahne (2,336 points, -548)
How he got here: Kahne first visited the top 12 after a seventh-place finish in race No. 4 at Atlanta. However, he tumbled as far down as 17th after a string of bad finishes in late April and early May. His march back into contention was fueled by a win at the Infineon Raceway road course in June. He’s reeled off three top-15 finishes in three races since then.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, two top-five, three top-10 finishes, 17.8 average finish in five starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: The flat 2.5-mile IMS suits Kahne’s driving style, and his average finish at the track has been marred by two accidents. Another top-five finish on Sunday could add more fuel to his resurgence at the new Richard Petty Motorsports and end his two-year Chase drought.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya (2,321 points, -563)
How he got here: Montoya, who hasn’t finished higher than 20th in the points in two Cup seasons, hovered around 14th or 15th until a sixth-place finish at Infineon Raceway in June finally propelled him into 12th. Since then, he’s climbed three more spots courtesy of three top-12 finishes.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, one top-10 finish, 20.5 average in two starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: In this rookie season, Montoya finished second at IMS and showed just how familiar he is with the tricky, 2.5-mile track, where he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000. Last season, he was a victim of the tire issues that plagued the field and finished 39th. Montoya, who will start second Sunday and had one of the fastest cars in Friday’s practices, is driving a retro paint scheme to commemorate his Indy 500 victory. Could IMS be the site of his first NASCAR oval win?
10. Kyle Busch (2,298 points, -586)
How he got here: After dominating the Cup Series last season, Busch has suffered through some baffling lows this year. Yes, he has three wins, but he also has eight finishes of 22nd or worse. He climbed to as high at fourth in the standings after a win in race No. 5 at Bristol, but only one top-10 finish in the past seven races finds him a mere 13 points ahead of 13th-place Greg Biffle and in danger of missing the Chase.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, one top-five, three top-10 finishes, 9.0 average finish in four starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Busch has never finished off the lead lap at IMS, and he desperately needs that trend to continue. Busch admitted Friday that he needs to be a better team player and improve his overall attitude. Following his own advice may be the only thing that keeps him from missing this year’s Chase.
11. Mark Martin (2,296 points, -588)
How he got here: With a series-high four wins, one would think the 50-year-old Martin would be much higher in the points. Not so. He has an average finish of 17.4 this season and five finishes of 35th or worse haven’t helped his Chase bid. Martin climbed as high as eighth in the standings after his third win (Michigan), but has stumbled a bit lately despite winning the most recent race at Chicagoland.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, five top-five, nine top-10 finishes, 14.1 average finish in 15 starts
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Polesitter Martin is one of four drivers who have competed in all 15 races at IMS and he’s traditionally done well at the track. He hasn’t been worse than 11th in the past four years and has finished on the lead lap every year since 2001. Martin, who posted the fastest time in Friday’s second practice, will need another steady performance Sunday to crawl up a spot or two in the standings.
12. Matt Kenseth (2,295 points, -589)
How he got here: Kenseth started the season in the “rabbit” role, winning the first two races and garnering a great deal of attention. Reality set in at race No. 3 in Las Vegas when he managed only six laps because of an engine failure and finished last. A 33rd-place result at Bristol two weeks later pushed Kenseth from fifth to 10th in the standings and he’s never really recovered.
Career stats at Indianapolis: No wins, four top-five, five top-10 finishes, 16.0 average finish in nine starts.
How the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could bolster his Chase chances: Kenseth likely needs top-10 finishes in all of the next seven races to make the Chase. He’s certainly capable and has the motivation of racing for his new baby daughter, Kaylin Nicola, who was born July 6. However, Kenseth will need to fend off teammate Greg Biffle (13th and 10 points behind 12th) and David Reutimann (14th, 76 points back) to keep his five-year Chase streak alive.
Photos: The Associated Press; Getty Images