Crunch Time for those outside the Chase for the Championship cutoff; Predicting a Final 12

Jeff Gordon signing autographs for fans at Talladega Superspeedway after winning the pole for the Aaron's 499 on May 4, 2012. (Matt Weaver/NASCAR Ranting and Raving)

The Chase for the Championship has added a lot of drama to NASCAR since its inclusion in 2004. While it can be argued whether or not it's added to the overall championship picture, it has added a layer to the middle of the season - the so-called race to Chase.

Jeff Gordon's victory on Sunday proved to be a game-changer in regards to trying to predict the would-be championship contenders. It seemed a forgone conclusion that despite his recent struggles, Kyle Busch would sneak in. The resurgent Kasey Kahne, with his two wins, appears to be a lock.

But Gordon's win, coupled with yet another Kyle Busch catastrophe changed everything. Gordon won the race and advanced to 13th in the standings. Meanwhile, Busch fell to 15th and out of the provisional wild card spot. Gordon is tied with Newman in both wins and points, but he holds the tie-breaker based on top-fives.

All three of are capable of winning at least once more, and they might need another win to seal the deal. And then there's Carl Edwards, still sitting out of the top-10, and without a win. Gordon's victory hurt Edwards more than any other contender. The 2012 championship runner-up was hoping to sneak-in a victory over the final six races, but with only one win over his last two seasons, the ability to win multiple times appears to be out of the question.

Don't forget about the struggling Joey Logano either, who also has one win, sitting in 17th place. A second win would likely negate this entire conversation. And while it's a long shot, Marcos Ambrose repeating at Watkins Glen on Sunday could really make things interesting. He sits 18th in the standings, right in the middle of the wild card log jam. He's not just a road course ace anymore, with Atlanta, his favorite oval less than a month away.

Ambrose could become the wildcard of the Wild Card standigs.

The Race to Chase heated up on Sunday, and the next five weeks should provide some of the most intriguing storylines of the entire season.

And lastly, here's who I predict will challenge for the championship once the standings reset in September:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Matt Kenseth

Greg Biffle

Jimmie Johnson

Martin Truex Jr.

Brad Keselowski

Kevin Harvick

Tony Stewart

Denny Hamlin

Clint Bowyer

Kasey Kahne

Jeff Gordon

In other words, there's no change from the status quo. Does my list differ from yours? Tell us in the comments section below!

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