Chase’s version of musical chairs: nine drivers to battle for five advancement spots at Dover

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When NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France announced the revised format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup earlier this year, he promised drama, pathos and intrigue as the 10-race playoff played out.

Well, here we are just two races in and there’s going to be a boatload of the France-promised drama, pathos, etc., heading into next Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway.

The third race of the Chase, Dover will also mark the cut-off for the first of three elimination rounds in the playoffs.

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In a racing version of musical chairs, four drivers will be eliminated after Dover. And heading there, right now, a total of nine drivers are on the elimination bubble.

Five of those nine will make it, four won’t.

And there is only 12 points separating those nine drivers.

Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are tied for eighth in the Chase standings, each 40 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.

AJ Allmendinger is one point back, in 10th place, 41 points behind Keselowski, while Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman are tied for 11th, both 42 points back.

At this juncture, Kahne and Newman are on the good side of the Chase cutoff bubble.

Then there are the four drivers who, as of this writing, are on the outside looking in, with one race left to put themselves back on the positive side of the ledger.

Chase standings after New Hampshire:
1 Brad Keselowski
2 Joey Logano -1
3 Kevin Harvick -7
4 Jimmie Johnson -17
5 Kyle Busch -20
5 Dale Earnhardt Jr. -20
7 Jeff Gordon -27
8 Matt Kenseth -40
8 Carl Edwards -40
10 AJ Allmendinger -41
11 Kasey Kahne -42
11 Ryan Newman -42
13 Denny Hamlin -48
13 Greg Biffle -48
15 Kurt Busch -50
16 Aric Almirola -52

Denny Hamlin suffered the biggest blow of all Chase drivers Sunday, dropping seven places from sixth to a tie with Greg Biffle for 13th, both drivers 48 points behind Keselowski.

Hamlin had one of the roughest days he’s ever had in his Cup career Sunday. First, he suffered a problem with the fuel filler receptacle, which prevented his team from being able to add fuel to Hamlin’s Camry.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, Hamlin’s day came to a crashing halt when he was involved in a three-car wreck with David Ragan and Martin Truex Jr., relegating Hamlin to a disappointing 37th-place finish.

Biffle, who barely managed to make the Chase as one of three drivers without a win thus far this season (and all three, Biffle, Kenseth and Newman remain winless in 2014), just could not get on track in Sunday’s race – one that he has previously won – and finds himself in 14th place in the rankings heading to Dover.

Unless Biffle makes a dramatic turnaround and garners a top-five finish next Sunday, his Chase hopes are also likely over.

Kurt Busch struggled Sunday, first with a loose wheel, and then later wrecked when a severe tire rub caused him to hit hard into the Turn 3 wall. As a result, Busch dropped six places in the standings to 15th, leaving him 50 points behind Keselowski and eight points behind the present cut-off guys, Newman and Kahne.

Last, but not least, Aric Almirola rebounded strongly from last week’s Chase-opening disappointment at Chicago. Almirola finished sixth at New Hampshire. Ironically, he was running sixth at Chicagoland when the motor on his Ford Fusion let go, relegating him to a 41st-place finish in that race.

And while he finished strong Sunday, Almirola unfortunately failed to gain even one point on Keselowski, remaining 52 points back – the same margin that he trailed Keselowski by coming into Sunday’s race.

Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (both 20 points behind Keselowski), who are tied for fifth, and seventh-ranked Jeff Gordon (27 points back) are all mathematically eligible to be eliminated, as well, but the odds of that happening are unlikely, given the edge they have over the rest of the Chase field.

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