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Drew Bonifant

A Sprint Cup Chase without past two champs? It’s looking possible

  • In this Aug. 5, 2013 photo, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, third from left, is loaded into an ambulance after being involved in a four-car wreck at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. A spokesman for Stewart said the 42-year-old driver broke his right tibia and fibula and had surgery after he was transported to a local hospital.  (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Mary Willie)

    In this Aug. 5, 2013 photo, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, third from left, is loaded into an ambulance after being involved in a four-car wreck at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. A spokesman for Stewart said the 42-year-old driver broke his right tibia and fibula and had surgery after he was transported to a local hospital. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Mary Willie)

  • FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300  Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway.  (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

    FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300 Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

  • Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

    Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Jim Furyk watches his shot out of the rough on the 16th hole during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Oak Hill Country Club, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, in Pittsford, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Jim Furyk watches his shot out of the rough on the 16th hole during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Oak Hill Country Club, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, in Pittsford, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300  Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway.  (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

    FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300 Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

  • Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

    Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Denny Hamlin, right, the talks with Kyle Busch in the garage area after taking the pole position in his FedEx Express Toyota for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Auto Club 400 auto race in Fontana, Calif., Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

    Denny Hamlin, right, the talks with Kyle Busch in the garage area after taking the pole position in his FedEx Express Toyota for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Auto Club 400 auto race in Fontana, Calif., Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

  • Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, right, is hugged by team owner and driver Tony Stewart after Newman won the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, July 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

    Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, right, is hugged by team owner and driver Tony Stewart after Newman won the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, July 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Driver Kasey Kahne talks with crew members in his garage during NASCAR auto race testing at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

    Driver Kasey Kahne talks with crew members in his garage during NASCAR auto race testing at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks with crew members in his garage during the final practice for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks with crew members in his garage during the final practice for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

  • In this Aug. 5, 2013 photo, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, third from left, is loaded into an ambulance after being involved in a four-car wreck at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. A spokesman for Stewart said the 42-year-old driver broke his right tibia and fibula and had surgery after he was transported to a local hospital.  (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Mary Willie)
  • FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300  Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway.  (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)
  • Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
  • Jim Furyk watches his shot out of the rough on the 16th hole during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Oak Hill Country Club, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, in Pittsford, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
  • FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire 300  Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Stewart will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen after breaking his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night, Aug. 5, 2013, at Southern Iowa Speedway.  (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)
  • Brad Keselowski runs to his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide auto race, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
  • Denny Hamlin, right, the talks with Kyle Busch in the garage area after taking the pole position in his FedEx Express Toyota for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Auto Club 400 auto race in Fontana, Calif., Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
  • Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, right, is hugged by team owner and driver Tony Stewart after Newman won the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, July 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
  • Driver Kasey Kahne talks with crew members in his garage during NASCAR auto race testing at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks with crew members in his garage during the final practice for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

The champion is on thin ice. And he’s got company.

The Chase for the Cup is mere weeks away, and the collection of drivers looking at missing the cut matches the luster of the sport’s top contenders. If the regular season ended today, Brad Keselowski would be out, as would Denny Hamlin, while Tony Stewart, who’s still in the lead for a wild card spot, is almost assuredly out of contention due to a broken leg suffered earlier this week.

That means that the Sprint Cup is looking at a major shakeup in its balance of power. Barring a change for Keselowski or a miracle for Stewart, the Chase will begin Sept. 15 in Chicago without its past two champions in Keselowski and Stewart, and its top seed from last year in Hamlin.

This turnover comes in a sport where stability is often the norm. Only once before has a champion missed the next year’s Chase – Stewart, who didn’t qualify in 2006 after winning the year before.

Now several marquee names will be out of the mix, though

two can blame bad luck for their struggles. Hamlin, who’s 25th in the standings, had his year derailed when he suffered a broken vertebra in March that forced him to miss four races, and Stewart broke his tibia and fibula in a crash while driving sprint cars Monday, the day after competing in a Sprint Cup race in Pocono.

Keselowski’s struggles have been more perplexing. Penske’s top driver made racing look easy last year while winning three regular-season races and two more in the Chase, earning him his first series title.

This year, mistakes on and off the track have pushed him to the brink of a lost season. Penalties levied against Penske docked Keselowski six points (he’s now seven out of the treasured 10th spot in the standings), but the speed he displayed in ample qualities last year has been missing. His top-10 and top-five numbers (10 and six, respectively) are respectable, but he’s got a zero in the wins column, which will be the decisive blow if the standings stay the way they are.

It looks bad for the three drivers, but there’s hope for two of them. Keselowski is still very much alive, as climbing two spots (really one, with the disabled Stewart occupying the other) will put him in line for the automatic berth, and he’s also got five chances to win a race and move into far more comfortable position for a wild-card spot.

Even Stewart’s game isn’t over. He needs a quick return, as missing more than three races would take away any chance he has of remaining in the top 20, and therefore eligible for wild card consideration. If he returns in time, and his one win remains tied for the most among wild card contenders, he would need to win one of the remaining races to salvage his title hopes.

But he needs a lot of help, from his competitors and his own body. Keselowski needs a turnaround. Hamlin needs this year to just be over with already.

If those needs go unfulfilled, however, they’ll be out, and there will be some new faces eyeing NASCAR’s biggest prize.

The beneficiary

Stewart’s injury will likely be catastrophic to his Chase for the Cup chances.

His teammate, however, could be in line to reap the benefits.

Stewart’s broken leg will remove from the mix one of the two leading wild card contenders. Martin Truex Jr., who’s 14th and has one win, now becomes the occupant of the first spot.

And Ryan Newman becomes the holder of the second spot.

The turn of events has a tinge of poetic justice. Stewart and Newman were both in the news recently, after all, when Stewart, a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, announced in Loudon that the team would not be bringing Newman back next year when it adds Kevin Harvick to the fold.

Newman was put off by the move, saying he wasn’t “happy with how everything unfolded.” He insisted that, even with his future in doubt, he was still focusing on this year.

So far, he’s proven it. Newman won at the Sprint Cup’s next stop after Stewart’s announcement, getting his first victory of the season at the Brickyard 400. He stayed hot the next week, grabbing fourth place at Pocono – and once again posting Stewart-Haas’s best finish of the day.

He’s now 15th in the Cup standings, but with his win, he’s really third in line for a wild card spot – and with Stewart out, he controls his own destiny for a playoff berth.

He’ll be looking for a ride after this year, but this season is far from over for Newman – thanks to the tough luck of the man who let him go in the first place.

Three up

Kasey Kahne – The Hendrick driver in all likelihood sealed a spot in the Chase with his second career victory at Pocono last week.

Ryan Newman – A win at Indianapolis and fourth-place effort at Pocono is some fine racing. Now, he needs to avoid the sorts of miscues that have resulted in six finishes of 30th or worse. He’s in the driver’s seat for a Chase spot, but one bad day could change that.

Kurt Busch – Busch is thisclose to authoring the Cinderella story of the year for one-car Furniture Row Racing. He was third at Pocono, and he’s 13th in the Cup standings. If he wins one of the next few races, his situation gets very interesting.

Three down

Jeff Burton – Burton warned anyone who would listen not to count him out of the Chase after he finished third in Loudon. Since then, he’s finished 43rd and 36th. Winless and at 20th in the standings, his postseason chances are remote.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – It looked like the rookie was making a run at a surprising Chase berth, but he’s finished 34th, 25th and 34th in his last three races. He’s still looking for his first top-10 finish.

Clint Bowyer – After posting six top-10s in seven races, he’s been outside the top 10 in his last three races. He’s in no danger of missing the Chase, but he is winless, and he’ll need to find his form quickly before the regular season ends.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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