Six drivers are already set to be title contenders in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, with at least another two possibly securing a place in the playoff series this weekend at Atlanta.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch, the current points leader, was the first to lock himself in the Chase with his fourth win of the season two weeks ago at Michigan, while reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth also secured a spot in the title battle with strong finishes last weekend at Bristol.
Following closer examination and due to the new wild card Chase placings available to those with one or more wins among 10th and 20th in points next week, NASCAR has also placed two-time winner Jeff Gordon and three-time winner Kevin Harvick among those safely in the Chase.
"Well, we are fortunate, the last couple of weeks have not taken in the results as a race team that we would have liked to have seen," said Harvick, whose results have been 22nd-place finishes in the last two weeks.
"It has been a little bit of a panic to everybody at RCR [Richard Childress Racing]. We were there Sunday morning after the race last week trying to backtrack and figure out the things we need to do to get back to where we were several weeks ago.
"We feel like we have chased down some things that we have probably not done right and we have got to do better, and some things that we need to incorporate back to the way we were doing them six months ago. If we go on to win or compete for a championship I think there are a lot of key moments we can look back to over these last three or four weeks."
This weekend at Atlanta both Gordon and Harvick will most likely leave both wild card entries up for grabs by locking up top-10 places in the points ahead of next week's event at Richmond. Stewart-Haas' Ryan Newman also needs a top-20 finish in order to lock himself in title contention one week in advance, while Penske's Kurt Busch needs a seventh-place finish to clinch a Chase spot on Sunday.
A number of different scenarios could also ensure that his teammate Brad Keselowski is part of the playoff series ahead of Richmond through one of the available wild cards, but he still could potentially break inside the top 10 in the points next week at Richmond and thus leave both wild cards available.
Behind Keselowski in the points, Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin and RCR's Paul Menard – both with a win and inside the top-20 – would be the leading eligible candidates for the final two Chase spots under such a scenario. Although the Penske driver is unlikely to need to break inside the top 10 in the standings to be a Chase contender, if Keselowski does so next week he would be able to use the three bonus points available per each victory toward his Chase berth, a privilege he would forfeit if he enters the Chase as one of the wild cards.