HAMPTON, Ga. - Tony Stewart can take it easy the next couple of weekends. Same for Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
The real action can be found further down the Sprint Cup standings.
With two races left until the Chase for the Championship, there's quite a battle shaping up for those last spots in the 12-driver playoff. So, excuse Matt Kenseth for seeming preoccupied. Cut Kasey Kahne a break if he's not in a talkative mood. Even Greg Biffle, relatively secure with the eighth spot in the standings, is feeling on edge.
"Certainly there's a lot of pressure," Biffle said Saturday after practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I don't think we can play it safe."
Some of this will get sorted out tonight in the Pep Boys Auto 500, when NASCAR holds its first scheduled race entirely under the lights at this 1.54-mile trioval, a track that's notoriously hard on tires and tends to separate the best drivers from the pretenders. Martin Truex won his first pole at Atlanta with a lap of 184.149 mph Saturday. Kahne, who is 11th in the Cup standings, qualified second at 183.497 mph.
Stewart, a three-time winner and comfortably atop the standings in his first year as a car owner, has a 220-point lead on Johnson, the three-time defending Cup champion. The Californian is trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight titles.
"I've never felt this good about starting the Chase in the past," Johnson said. "The car is spot on. Mentally and physically, this is the best I've ever been."
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion but without a title since 2001, is right in the mix (254 points behind Stewart), while Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch are all at least 192 points ahead of 13th-place Kyle Busch and probably through to the next round unless they run into a stunning bit of misfortune.
Everyone will keep an eye on Kahne and Kenseth, who hold the last two spots in the Chase and are hoping to hold off the younger Busch and Brian Vickers, both within 57 points of 11th.
Busch, 24, and Mark Martin, 50, have won more races than anyone this year (four apiece), but there's a chance neither will be in the Chase. Martin is 10th in points, though he helped his chances with a runner-up showing at Bristol, gaining two spots.
Busch has some work to do if he's going to make up for his dismal showing in last year's Chase. He was the leader going into the 10-race playoff but failed to complete a couple of events and dropped to 10th.
"My biggest concern is going to be Atlanta, just trying to get through Atlanta with a solid top-10 finish," said Busch, who's only 34 points behind Kenseth. "If we can do that, I think we'll be okay."
Kenseth is a former Cup champion and has never missed the Chase. He won't be racing for wins, only to stay ahead of the guys who are trying to make his last 10 races moot.
"We've got to beat all the guys we're around to get in," he said. "I feel like our stuff has been running better lately, like we've been gaining a little bit of momentum and have been a little more competitive ... but you just never know."
Sprint Cuppoint standings
Through 24 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship; the Chase field will be set after the Sept. 12 race at Richmond International Raceway.
Driver Points Back
Tony Stewart 3,564 -
Jimmie Johnson 3,334 220
Jeff Gordon 3,310 254
Denny Hamlin 3,141 423
Carl Edwards 3,110 454
Kurt Busch 3,103 461
Ryan Newman 2,995 569
Greg Biffle 2,986 578
Juan Montoya 2,975 589
Mark Martin 2,971 593
Kasey Kahne 2,963 601
Matt Kenseth 2,945 619
Kyle Busch 2,911 653
Brian Vickers 2,906 658
Clint Bowyer 2,833 731
Pep Boys Auto 500, 7:30 tonight, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga. TV: ESPN