Where they stand: Breaking down the Eliminator Round
Just one race into the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and already three drivers are in precarious points holes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is no longer in the championship mix, won at Martinsivlle Speedway on Sunday, with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon taking over the points lead by virtue of his runner-up finish at the Virginia short track.
Gordon has 4,044 points and the next four drivers behind him are within single digits of the lead: Ryan Newman (-3) is second, followed by Joey Logano (-4), Matt Kenseth (-5) and Denny Hamlin (-7).
Then it's a precipitous drop to Carl Edwards (-20), Brad Keselowski (-31) and Kevin Harvick (-33).
After the Phoenix race in two weeks, the top four drivers will advance to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the best finisher of the four will be crowned champion.
To be one of the final four, Chase-eligible drivers must either win one of the next two races or be one of the top drivers in points. Because Martinsville winner Earnhardt isn't one of the eight Eliminator Round drivers, that means at least two drivers will advance on points and no more than two will advance by virtue of winning at Texas or Phoenix.
Depending on what happens in the next two races, either two, three or four drivers will advance on points. The scenarios are as follows:
-- No Chase drivers win at Texas or Phoenix: Top four drivers advance on points.
-- A Chase driver wins at either Texas or Phoenix: Top three drivers advance on points, one on a race victory.
-- Chase drivers wins both Texas and Phoenix: Top two drivers advance on points, two on race victories.
Already, the pressure in on.
At first blush, the points deficit for Edwards, Keselowski and Harvick would appear to be daunting. But that doesn't mean those three are out of it by any means.
Following the first race of the Challenger Round, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Edwards and Newman were all at least 25 points behind then-leader Keselowski, yet all four advanced to the Contender Round without winning a race.
After the opening race of the Contender Round, Keselowski was 39 points back, but raced his way in with a victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Of course, this time around will be tougher.
In the Challenger Round, 12 drivers advanced to the next round.
In the Contender Round, eight drivers advanced to the next round.
In the Eliminator Round, only four will advance.
The clearest path to a seat in the Championship Round remains winning one of the next two races. But points are still important, too. So while Edwards, Keselowski and Harvick might take big risks to find Victory Lane in the next two races, the top five might be much more conservative in strategy hoping to race their way in on points.
Either way, it's going to be an interesting two weeks ahead.