Ladies and gentleman, the Chase field is nearly set after Sunday's Advocare 500. One wild card berth is still up for grabs between six drivers who remain eligible.
The hopes of many (especially one Jeff Gordon) were dashed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while others continued to position themselves well for a run at the 2012 Sprint Cup title. Who's up and who's down?
Up: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is peaking just at the right time after going through a rough patch a while ago. Winner of the last two races, Hamlin is in position to be leading the points come Chase time. Could crew chief Darian Grubb follow up his 2011 act of helping Tony Stewart to the 2011 title by leading Hamlin to his first championship? They're looking scary good right now.
Down: Ryan Newman
More bad luck for Newman as he tangled with Jimmie Johnson near the end of the race, dooming him to a 35th-place finish. Rocket Man dropped two slots in the standings to 17th, falling behind fellow one-time winners Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose, and now nothing but a win will suffice to get him into the Chase. Amazing to think that just a couple of weeks ago Newman had a decent lead over Kyle Busch (whom he now trails by 49 points).
Up: Kyle Busch
Speaking of Rowdy, the No. 18 nailed a solid sixth-place run at Atlanta, giving him a 12-point edge over Jeff Gordon heading into the Richmond, the final race to make the Chase. Busch is as good as anyone at the 0.75-mile Virginia short track and won there earlier this year. At this point, only a full-fledged disaster will be enough to keep Busch from squeaking into the Chase.
Down: Jeff Gordon
It's hard to knock Gordon after finishing runner-up in a green-white-checkered finish, but unfortunately, wins are what is needed right now for Team 24. Barring a catastrophic finish by Kyle Busch at Richmond, nothing but taking the checkered flag is going to get Gordon into the Chase, and he missed a golden opportunity on Sunday night in Atlanta.
Up: Kevin Harvick
No, "Happy" Harvick didn't get his first W of the season after leading 101 laps at Atlanta (he finished fifth), but at least he proved he's capable of running up front. Harvick has now led 229 laps on the season and is starting to show signs of life after a lackluster summer. He's far from a championship favorite at this point, and Harvick will need to build on that impressive run if he wants to challenge for the title as he has over the last two seasons, finishing third in both 2010 and 2011.
Down: Carl Edwards
Wild card hopefuls are running out of hope, and Edwards is no exception. In fact, he might be worse off than any of the others. At least Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose (long shots though they may be) know that if they can win at Richmond, they're in the Chase. Edwards, however, is winless this year, and even if he can pull off his first victory in a year and a half at Richmond, he'll need Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch to suffer bad luck in order to make the Chase. Things are looking grim at the No. 99 camp, after coming within a tiebreaker of being Cup champions just ten months ago.
Up: Brad Keselowski
Bad Brad keeps rattling off top finish after top finish, and a third-place finish at Atlanta only serves to maintain the momentum of Team 2 as the Chase looms ever nearer. Keselowski finished a surprising fifth in the title battle in 2011 and following that breakthrough performance, he has big plans for what he wants to accomplish this time around. Right now, Keselowski is showing that he's as much of a threat for the championship as any other driver.
Down: Danica Patrick
I should note that Danica isn't really moving "down," because she was never really up to begin with. Her rough initiation into Sprint Cup competition continued on Sunday as she finished in 29th place, six laps down. Atlanta was her fifth career Cup race, and after finishing 38th in the Daytona 500 in February, she's finished between 29th and 31st in her four subsequent starts. If she really is moving up to Stewart-Haas full-time in 2013, it could be a long season for the GoDaddy.com driver.