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 couple of 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 a bit on edge.
"Certainly there’s a lot of pressure," Biffle said Saturday, standing outside his hauler 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 high-speed, 1.54-mile trioval south of Atlanta, a track that’s notoriously hard on tires and tends to separate the best drivers from the pretenders.
As usual, subplots are all around. Carl Edwards is fifth and looking good for the Chase, but he was hobbling around the garage on crutches after breaking his right foot playing Frisbee. He’ll be racing, because this is no time to get out of the car.
"I hate to say it, but I probably won’t be doing back flips for six to eight months if I win," quipped Edwards, referring to his signature celebration off the roof of his car.
Stewart, a three-time winner, is comfortably atop the standings in his first year as a car owner. The notoriously cranky driver seemed jovial as he looked ahead to racing in Atlanta and next week at Richmond, where the Chase field will be finalized.
"I am racing 100 percent pressure free," Stewart said. "We have nothing to lose. We can’t be bumped out of the Chase. We can finish 43rd the next two races and still be in the Chase."
Stewart has a 220-point lead on Johnson, the three-time defending Cup champion who will be tough to beat once they start racing for the biggest prize. The cool 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. "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, Edwards and Kurt Busch all are 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.
The 24-year-old Busch and 50-year-old Mark Martin have won more races than anyone else this season (four apiece), but there’s a chance neither will be in the Chase. Martin is 10th in the overall standings, though he helped his chances immensely with a runner-up showing in the last race at Bristol, moving up two spots.
Busch has 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.