With the Race to the Chase at the midpoint, whose glasses are half full, whose are half empty and whose are shattered?


ONE TO WATCH: Brad Keselowski
WHY HE MATTERS: Kansas win puts him in wild card contention.
WHAT HE SAYS: “Nobody told me I was leading.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: It was his first Cup win since his Talladega upset in April ’09.

CENTERPIECE
Crossed flags
With the Race to the Chase at the midpoint, whose glasses are half full, whose are half empty and whose are shattered?


Half full
• Kevin Harvick
It’s not just that he’s the season’s only three-time winner. It’s that all three of his wins have come at tracks where he’d never won before. That type of versatility evokes Jimmie “Five-Time” Johnson.

• Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson
Although each has just one official win — Edwards also won the All-Star Race — they sit first and second, respectively, in points, giving them clean air in the Race to the Chase.

• Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth
They trail Edwards and Johnson in the standings, but a pair of wins apiece actually gives each of these drivers a broader margin for error under the new “wild card” system of Chase qualifying.

• Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith
With wins at Daytona and Darlington, respectively, each of these underdogs has had a successful season no matter what happens the rest of the year.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The problem lately for Junior hasn’t been the amount of water in the glass; it’s been the amount of gas in the tank. Two weeks in a row Earnhardt has come out on the short end of the fuel-mileage battle: First when he ran dry on the last lap at Charlotte, and then when Brad Keselowski didn’t run dry on the last lap at Kansas. But he sits third in points, and the end of that 106-race winless streak feels imminent.

Half empty
• Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski
“Heck,” Keselowski said last week after winning at Kansas, “if we can get one more of these we can make the Chase.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that both Keselowski and Gordon might need to win another race to make the Chase if they can’t crack the top 10 in points. In fact, Keselowski isn’t even in the top 20 — which would mean that if the season ended today, he wouldn’t qualify even for a wild card berth in the Chase.

• Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman
Another good news/bad news scenario. The good news: Each of these drivers sits in the top 10 in points and would make the Chase if the season ended today. The bad news: None of these drivers has won a race in 2011, and each is in the bottom of the bracket, uncomfortably close to the bubble.

• Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya
It’s stretching the metaphor to even put this group in the “half empty” category at his point. These drivers have all been title contenders in recent seasons, so for each to find himself winless and outside the top 10 at this stage is bitterly disappointing. Still, just one win for any of them could turn the season around.  

• A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, David Ragan
One win for any of these four would also make 2011 a successful season — Chase or no Chase. None has ever won a Sprint Cup race, but each has spent enough time up front this season to make that breakthrough victory feel tantalizingly close.

• NASCAR
For all the good things that have happened to the organization this season — see Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith above — NASCAR continues to generate the greatest amount of press when things are going wrong. Exhibit A: On a weekend that produced great finishes in the Nationwide series, Camping World truck series and the inaugural STP 400 Sprint Cup series race at Kansas, a garage area punch-up between Richard Childress and Kyle Busch created the most buzz.

Shattered
• Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, David Reutimann, Jamie McMurray
Based on recent performances — all five have been to victory lane within the last three years — each of these drivers had reason for optimism heading into 2011. Each has instead endured bitter disappointment. Even if one of them makes it back to victory lane before September, that still might not be enough to salvage the season. Like Keselowski, none is in the top 20 in points — a prerequisite for a Chase wild card spot.

NEXT RACE Pocono 500, Pocono Raceway
THE LOWDOWN Over the last two weeks fuel strategy has determined the winner in a 600-mile race at Charlotte and in a 400-mile race at Kansas. Will it also dictate the outcome in a 500-miler at Pocono? Could be. Traditionally this event sees relatively few cautions, averaging just under seven per race over the last five years. But those long straight-aways and tight turns are an engine-tuner’s nightmare. An engine set up to squeeze the maximum distance out of a tank of gas could suffer a meltdown. That’s one way to bump up the number of cautions.

PAST WINNERS
2010 Denny Hamlin
2009 Tony Stewart
2008    Kasey Kahne
2007    Jeff Gordon
2006    Denny Hamlin


ABOUT Pocono
TRACK: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.), 2.5-mile paved oval
RACE LENGTH: 200 laps, 500 miles
FIRST RACE: 1974
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of note
“It’s just rolling the dice, man. … Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it don't.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr., after losing on fuel strategy for the second straight week.

Where to watch
Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at noon Eastern, followed by the race at 1 p.m.

UP TO SPEED
First things first
To finish first, the old saying goes, you must first finish. You must also finish on the lead lap. No one has done a better job of finishing on the lead lap at Pocono than Brian Vickers, who’s done it 12 times in 12 career starts (see chart). Vickers has never won at Pocono, however. His best career finish is second (twice). Kurt Busch, by contrast, has two career wins at Pocono, but has finished on the lead lap in just 60 percent of his starts, which doesn’t even place him among the top 20.

Probing probation
Trouble has a way of finding Kyle Busch. On probation for a post-race altercation with Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick at Dover last month, Busch was involved in an altercation with team owner Richard Childress himself in the garage following last week’s Camping World truck series race at Kansas. But since Childress apparently threw the punches and Busch merely received them, “we concluded that (Busch) did nothing to provoke or to cause the reactions that, in our opinion, would have violated probation,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton.

Milestone
This year marks the 30th edition of the Pocono 500. Like Kansas Speedway, which just got a second annual Cup race for the first time this year, Pocono started with one race a year. The triangular track in the Pocono mountains held a single Cup race each season from 1974 through 1981 before adding a June race in 1982. Bobby Allison won that event, then completed the season sweep in July. Five others have repeated the feat, the most recent being Denny Hamlin in 2006.

WEEKLY STATS
Lead lap finishes (LLF) at Pocono*

RANK        DRIVER        LLF/STARTS    PCT.        
1        Brian Vickers    12/12        100%
2        Jimmie Johnson    17/18        94%
3 (tie)    Denny Hamlin    9/10            90%
3        Martin Truex Jr.    9/10            90%
5 (tie)    Paul Menard        7/8            88%
5         David Ragan        7/8            88%
7        Matt Kenseth    19/22        86%    
8        Kevin Harvick    17/20        85%
9 (tie)    Carl Edwards    10/12        83%
9        Ryan Newman    15/18        83%
11        Mark Martin        39/48        81%
12        Jeff Gordon      29/36        81%
13        Clint Bowyer    8/10              80%
14 (tie)    Greg Biffle        12/16        75%
14        Casey Mears        12/16        75%
14        Juan Montoya    6/8            75%            
14        Tony Stewart    18/24        75%
18        A.J. Allmendinger 5/7            71%
18        Kasey Kahne    10/14        71%      
20        Jeff Burton        24/34        71%

*Active, full-time drivers with at least seven Pocono starts.