WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Kurt Busch likes where he sits in the Sprint Cup standings as he attempts a rare season sweep at NASCAR's two road courses.
"I'm glad that we're in a more comfortable position and having an 88-point cushion on that cutoff," Busch, fourth in the standings, said Saturday before qualifying for today's Cup race at Watkins Glen International. "You can gain 40-something points in a race. Right now we have a two-race cushion. I'm glad that we can sit on the outside of the fence and not be one of those guys trying to race their way in."
NASCAR's new points system has created more drama than ever since the 10-race Chase for the Championship was instituted in 2004. Race winners earn 43 points, plus three bonus points for the victory. Winners can earn an extra point for leading a lap and leading the most laps, bringing their total to a possible maximum of 48. All other drivers in the finishing order are separated by one-point increments. The top 10 drivers in points and the two with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn spots for the Chase. Now, those wild-card slots belong to Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
With five races left — Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond — before the Chase cutoff, the tension is mounting.
"There's more questions about who's going to make the Chase than we've ever had," said Jeff Burton, who has yet to register a top 10 and sits 24th in points. "You can make a solid argument there's six or seven teams, maybe eight or nine teams, that could go either way. That puts a lot of people in the mix to be excited or disappointed."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 10th with 641 points, just one point behind Tony Stewart. They're the only drivers in the top 10 without a win, giving hope to Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard of Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle, among others.
"It's changed for some of those guys," said Bowyer, who sits 12th, 41 points behind Earnhardt. "For us, we don't have a win. Our best shot is to race our way into the top 10. I truly believe that. But for some of these wild-card guys, getting a second win is a big deal."
Despite a broken left ankle and sore back, Keselowski zoomed into the playoff picture with a win a week ago at Pocono. Still, he's only 19 points ahead of 21st-place Juan Pablo Montoya.
Rain is in the forecast for today, which could affect strategy as it did a week ago at Pocono. For 24th-place Burton, that gives him a ray of hope.
"As silly as it sounds, we've got some good races coming up, too," he said. "If we just were to finish the next five races the way that we've run, if we somehow were able to win two of them, we'd make the Chase. That's insane."
Pole to Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch won his first-ever pole on a road course, running 126.421 mph around the 11-turn, 2.45-mile circuit and shattering the track record at Watkins Glen.
Quotable: "It's rubbing racing. I'm putting the 'R' back in racing." — Kurt Busch, unapologetic about irking Jimmie Johnson by banging into him during the last lap last week at Pocono.