WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Kurt Busch likes where he sits in the Sprint Cup standings as he prepares to try for a rare season sweep at NASCAR's two road courses.
"I'm glad that we're in a more comfortable position and having an 88-point cushion on that cutoff," Busch, fourth in the standings, said Saturday before qualifying a disappointing 27th for Sunday's Cup race at Watkins Glen International. "You can gain 40-something points in a race. Right now we have a two-race cushion. I'm glad that we can sit on the outside of the fence and not be one of those guys trying to race their way in."
NASCAR's new points system has created more drama than ever since the 10-race Chase for the Cup was instituted in 2004. Race winners earn 43 points, plus three bonus points for the victory. Winners also can earn an extra point for leading a lap and leading the most laps, bringing their total to a possible maximum of 48 points. All other drivers in the finishing order are separated by one-point increments, with the second-place finisher earning 42, third 41, and so on.
The top 10 drivers in the standings and the two drivers with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn spots for the Chase.
If the postseason had begun Saturday, the wild cards would have gone to Brad Keselowski, who sits 18th in points but has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, who is 11th with one win.
With five races remaining -- Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- before the Chase cutoff, the tension is mounting.
"If you take the points system and look at it, I'd be willing to say where we are right now, there's more questions about who's going to make the Chase than we've ever had," said Jeff Burton, who has yet to register a top 10 and sits 24th in points. "You can make a solid argument there's six or seven teams, maybe eight or nine teams, that could go either way. That puts a lot of people in the mix to be excited or disappointed."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits in 10th place with 641 points, just one point ahead of two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart. They're the only drivers in the top 10 without a victory, giving hope to Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard of Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle, among others.
"It's changed for some of those guys," said Bowyer, who sits 12th, 41 points behind Earnhardt but only three ahead of Biffle. "For us, we don't have a win. Our best shot is to race our way into the top 10. I truly believe that. But for some of these wild-card guys, getting a second win is a big deal."
Earnhardt was collateral damage in a seven-car accident on the road course at Sonoma in June. The crash triggered by Stewart put a hole in the radiator of Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy and his engine eventually blew, leading to just his second DNF since 2009.
Earnhardt is both confident and wary about his position in the standings.
"They want some of us to slip back there, some of us who haven't won a race," said Earnhardt, who notched his first top 10 in seven races last week at Pocono and has three top 10s in 11 starts at Watkins Glen.
Despite racing with a broken left ankle and sore back, Keselowski zoomed into the playoff picture with a stunning win a week ago at Pocono, holding off Kyle Busch for his second victory of the season. Still, he's only 19 points ahead of 21st-place Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending race winner at Watkins Glen.
"To say that we would win this week would be a little unrealistic expectation," said Keselowski, who finished 20th at WGI last year in his first career Cup start at the track, then improved to 10th at Sonoma in June. "I've slowly been improving. I'd like to get a good, stout finish. If we can just keep chipping away and just keep getting a little bit better, get a top 16, a top 10, that would be a hell of a day."
Menard had that kind of day two weeks ago at Indianapolis when he held off Jeff Gordon to win the Brickyard 400, then followed that with a 10th at Pocono.
"But one victory doesn't guarantee anything," Menard said. "I think Brad kind of proved that last week -- two is obviously better than one. That's what we're working hard on, getting a second one. Then we'll feel pretty good. We've got to try to get win No. 2 and take some risks that we might not take otherwise."
Hamlin has four top-10 finishes in five starts at Watkins Glen. Still, his team has struggled mightily. Since his win at Michigan, Hamlin has only one top 10.
"Everyone has to do their job and do it well, and we've just struggled to do that consistently. That's something we've got to work on. It's just frustrating when mistakes cost us week in and week out," said Hamlin, who won eight races last year but fell short of dethroning five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
The frustration struck again Saturday during qualifying. Hamlin lost control coming out of the Carousel turn, a sweeping right-hander, and he was unable to prevent the right side of his No. 11 Toyota from slamming the guard rail that lines the track.
Rain is in the forecast for Sunday, which could affect strategy as it did a week ago at Pocono. Many thought the race might be over when it was red-flagged with Joey Logano leading, but after a 1 hour, 40-minute rain delay, NASCAR was able to get it in and Keselowski responded with his impressive win.
Heck, that was enough to give Burton a ray of hope of making the Chase again.
"As silly as it sounds, we've got some good races coming up, too," Burton said. "If we just were to finish the next five races the way that we've run, if we somehow were able to win two of them, we'd make the Chase. That's insane."