Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 9/29/14

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, stands on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2009 in Avondale, AZ. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is back in Loudon, N.H., at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, and with the Chase for the Sprint Cup now just eight races away, it’s officially crunch time as drivers jostle for position in the standings, looking to qualify into the 12-team field and get one step closer to the 2013 championship. With half the season — 18 races — in the books, the top of the standings are being occupied by drivers who even the most fair-weather of fair-weather fans of the sport will recognize. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, with four victories under his belt this season, is in first place by a comfortable margin, leading second place Clint Bowyer by 49 points. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in fifth place, while former champions Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart all have spots in the top 10. But it may be those who are on the outside looking in at the Chase that have the most intriguing storyline. Heading into Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301, defending champion Brad Keselowski and four-time champion Jeff Gordon sit in 13th and 14th place, respectively. Gordon has only missed one Chase — in 2005 — since the series launched its new championship system in 2004. Click on the link below to read more about what to watch for in this Sunday’s race at New Hampshire. Click here to see what to watch for in Sunday’s race at New Hampshire >>
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