BROOKLYN, Mich. - The top drivers in the Sprint Cup Series won't arrive here until later in the week, but yesterday evening they already were likely engaging in strategy and concentrating their attention on Michigan International Speedway, the site of the next event - Sunday's 3M Performance 400.
The MIS August race is the first of just four that remain on the schedule before NASCAR makes the final cut for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
That is stock car racing's version of the World Series, or the NFL playoffs - pressure-packed events, with tons of prize money on the line.
One of the things that makes NASCAR's playoff unique is that the last 10 races - when the Chase is contested - will have full fields of 43 cars, but only the top 12 drivers in points at the start of that stretch run are eligible to win the coveted season series championship.
Carl Edwards, who moved into second in the points after finishing ninth in yesterday's Cup race at Watkins Glen, said there is still time for a lot of movement in and out of the top 10 in points, leaving a number of drivers with a realistic shot at winning the big prize.
"There's no way to tell right now who's got the best chance of winning the championship," Edwards said as his team tackled the tricky 2.45-mile road course at Watkins Glen. "There's enough teams that are running well, and right now there's a number of teams that can win every week. It seems like there's more people getting stronger as we go."
Edwards, who won the June Cup race at MIS in 2007, said that as the schedule plays out and the opportunities dwindle to make a move in the points race, the determination cranks up.
"These next races are win at all costs, just get the wins, and get the bonus points," Edwards said. "We're not really worried about anything other than that."
Points leader Kyle Busch won yesterday's race at Watkins Glen, and fattened his load of bonus points since it was his eighth win of the season. Ten bonus points are awarded for each win, and those bonus points provide an advantage once the Chase field is set and the final 10 races begin.
Busch has clinched his spot in the Chase, and has 50 more bonus points than Edwards at this juncture. Busch's overall lead on Edwards heading into the MIS race is 242 points.
Clint Bowyer, a disappointing 23rd in yesterday's race, dropped out of the Chase field and into 13th place in points. He trails former series champion Matt Kenseth by just 22 points for that final position.
Kasey Kahne, who missed the Chase a year ago, had a 14th-place finish at Watkins Glen and comes to MIS eighth in points. He has benefited from more consistent finishes, and the bonus points for his two series wins this season.
"The bonus points are going to be a pretty big deal," Kahne said. "If you start 60, 70, 100 points ahead of the other guys, it will be a great way to start the Chase. Just being ahead will give you some breathing room. We have to focus on doing all that we can to get more bonus points - that will be pretty big heading into the Chase."
Since the start of the Chase is just a month away, commencing with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 14, Kahne said the intensity of the points battle increases each week.
"The best way for us to make the Chase is to remain consistent with our race car each and every race. It's a tough battle right now," he said.
Greg Biffle, 10th in points coming to MIS, has to like his chances of enhancing that rating, since he has two Cup Series wins at the two-mile oval.
"It's a really fun track and it puts on really good races. I like racing there and I look forward to it every time," Biffle said.
"It's important for us to run well there, plus it's another opportunity to get ourselves locked in this Chase. We think we're going to run good enough at these next races that we're going to lock ourselves in, and we feel like a win. If we go somewhere and win, that's really going to solidify us into the Chase. That's going to be a boost - a 10-point bonus - and it's going to make an impact on securing us a spot in that Chase."
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