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The heat is on Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya, and even Carl Edwards

   Even Atlanta winner Kasey Kahne isn't assured of a spot yet in the NASCAR championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Hey, now! NASCAR is back on a roll: TV ratings for Sunday's Atlanta 500 were, over last year's Sprint Cup tour Labor Day weekend stop in Southern California.
   That's the fourth straight week for improved TV ratings.
   So, do we credit the action on the track, or the guys in the booth -- Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, Dale Jarrett, and Ray Evernham?
   Atlanta, where Kasey Kahne won a strange one, for car owner Richard Petty, to solidify his shot at making the playoffs, which begin next week at Loudon, N.H., pulled a 4.1 on ESPN, the network said. That's up from California's 3.9 last summer.
   Last season this Atlanta race was run in mid-October, on ABC, which reported 5.6 million viewers; this year's Atlanta race, on ESPN, drew 5.8 million viewers, the network says.
   ESPN's Nationwide coverage is also improving, with four straight weeks of ratings increases now.
   The Saturday night Atlanta event pulled a 1.4 on ESPN2, compared to a 1.1 rating of the Fontana, California, race last season.
  If Jimmie Johnson wins a fourth straight championship, should NASCAR change the points system? That's what NASCAR did after Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   This weekend's stop at Richmond International Raceway is the final race of the 26-race 'regular' season, and the top 12 at the end of the Richmond 400 will have a shot at the championship, over the season's last 10 races.
   While there is a good battle at the bottom of the standings to make the playoff cut -- with 14th-place Kyle Busch and 13th-place Brian Vickers trying to dislodge 12th-place Matt Kenseth  or one of the others -- the championship chase itself is almost certainly down to Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
  If Las Vegas' odds on this 400 mean anything, here's the line: Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson the two favorites to win, slightly over hometown hero Denny Hamlin. The other top three in the hunt for the 400 win should be Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin. Or so says Vegas.
   Busch may have the edge at this three-quarter-mile track over Kenseth and Vickers, who typically don't do that well here. Busch took both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at Richmond in May, and he has seven top-fives in his nine starts.
   Stewart, Gordon, Johnson and Denny Hamlin are the only men 'locked in' the playoffs.
   And Carl Edwards, who would have appeared rather solidly in the playoffs before Atlanta -- and before breaking his right foot playing Frisbee -- is only 122 points in front of Busch.
    Busch, who of course would like to make amends for last fall's collapse in the playoffs, after dominating the regular season, first has to make the cut. And Kenseth, though he really hasn't run well at all most of the season, continues to hang tough, as he did with a 12th at Atlanta.
   Ironically Busch and Mark Martin, who almost might well miss the playoff cut, have each won four Cup events this season, more than anyone else. If they fail to make the cut, it might mean time for NASCAR to tweak the point system.
   In fact if Jimmie Johnson, as well he might, wins the championship for the fourth straight time, it might clearly be time for NASCAR to adjust the chase. After all, it only took one title run -- Kenseth's 2003 runaway -- for NASCAR to change the championship rules.

  Two of NASCAR's most powerful -- president Mike Helton and ISC boss Lesa France Kennedy -- may have to rethink this championship if Jimmie Johnson sweeps to a fourth straight Sprint Cup title (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Busch says he clearly can't stroke his way into the playoffs; he has to charge.
   "We just have to do what we need to do," he says.
   "It's not these two races, Atlanta or Richmond, that will put us in the Chase. It's more the season we've had that's kept us out of it.
   "We've struggled a little bit this year. We haven't been as good as we've needed to be.
   "So unfortunately we're in this predicament."
    Or maybe Busch doesn't really have to go for the win Saturday night....though it's pretty hard to figure out all the possible scenarios.
    "Not only do we have to beat Brian Vickers but we also have to beat Matt Kenseth."
   Busch almost seems resigned to possibly missing the title run.
   "There's nothing you can do -- You can't change what they're doing....you can't make race calls for those guys and tell them they need to pit," Busch says.
   "There's really no point in going through that frustration and trying to figure out where those guys are.
   "You just see what it boils down to at the end of the day."
   After Richmond's Saturday night 400, the next stop for the 12 championship contenders will be New York City, for a PR swing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    The 12 men who do make the playoffs will get a whirlwind media PR tour of New York City next Thursday, to promote the championship.
   Will Brian Vickers be one of those 12? That would be another milestone for the Red Bull team; Vickers just got the team its first Cup win three weeks ago at Michigan.
    Vickers, just 20 points behind the cut, says the team's title bid "is pretty impressive.
    "We know we're capable of making the chase. The biggest thing is to not make mistakes and stay out of trouble.
   "You can't have anything worse than probably a top-10.
    "A lot is going to depend on where the competition finishes. We can win the race, but if they finish second, then we're still going to be out, and there's nothing we could have done."
    While Vickers does hold the track qualifying record (129.983 mph, May 2004), only twice has he finished better than 15th.
    Still, Vickers was on the pole in May...and over the past eight tour events he's scored more points than any other driver. He finished seventh at Atlanta, and he hasn't finished worse than 12th since June.

   The odds say Kyle Busch will make the chase....he won Richmond in the spring (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

2 of them for ya Mr. Mike

I thought I had read what really ranks up there as a top WTF comment for the year in, "The championship chase itself is almost certainly down to Tony Stewart, JJ & Jeff Gordon", then I read further where you wrote that, and I'm paraphrasing because I don't quite understand the line, 'Mark might as well miss the cut'. What the hell were you smoking when you wrote this stuff? Did you forget that the points reset? Do you remember what happened to Shrub or Cousin Carl last year?? And do you not know Mark's abilities at RIR? (And yes, I know Mark's luck all too well, so there's one for you, bud)

I know you're better than that Mike. I've been reading your stuff for a a little while now. Still will, btw.. Keep it up.

Have a nice weekend-

Palmdale Ca.

re TS/JJ/JG: we've seen them

re TS/JJ/JG: we've seen them all season, and they've been strong almost every week, and while one of them might flounder in the chase, maybe two, I can't see all three men collapsing. And i've watched all the competition all season too, and i haven't seen anyone with as much consistency and strength and speed as those three, and dont expect anyone to pull rabbits out of the hat this late in the season.
re mark: perhaps i should have said 'mark also might miss the cut;' he's 10th in the standings.
Of course if Mark makes the cut, then he would probably be the new points leader, with at least four wins.
naturall i'm rooting for mark, a good bud, to make the title chase....
his record at richmond: one win (1990), 16 top-fives in 47 starts, an average finish of 11.936 (only seven others in this field have a better average finish). And I have been at this track for every one of Mark's 47 runs. So here's hoping he has some good luck Saturday; he deserves another shot at the title.

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