Here are some storylines to follow, notes and drivers to watch for during tonight's running of the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
Keselowski leads, while Johnson and Hamlin remain in close pursuit
After escaping virtually unscathed from the craziness that was Talladega, Brad Keselowski was able to increase his point lead to 14 over Jimmie Johnson and 23 over Denny Hamlin. But as Keselowski himself has repeatedly said, there is no reason to start celebrating with six races left on the schedule. And the Penske Racing driver is correct, because while 14 points does offer him a bit of a buffer, it's a lead that can quickly evaporate.
Tonight, the onus falls on Johnson and Hamlin to go out and outperform Keselowski. If Johnson and Hamlin can do this, it will put the pressure squarely on the man they are chasing – a driver who has yet to experience the rigors of being in a championship fight and all that goes with being the hunted and not the hunter.
Another thing to keep an eye on is whether Hamlin and his No. 11 team start rethinking their strategy. Twenty two points is by no means insurmountable – a year ago at this time Tony Stewart entered this race 19 markers out of first. But considering the position in which Hamlin now finds himself, it means he won't be afforded another mulligan if he wants to win his first series title and likely needs to finish in the top 10 from here on out.
Can Jeff Gordon continue his charge?
After opening the Chase in the worst way possible, Jeff Gordon has finished second, second and third the last three weeks and has done everything he can to try and climb back up the standings. But despite the valiant effort, he is still staring at a 42-point deficit and can only do so much in pursuit of his fifth series title. This means not only does Gordon have to continue finishing near the front every week; he also is going to need some help – and lots of it.
Regan Smith steps into the spotlight
Due to two concussions he's suffered over the previous six weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be in the field when the green flag flies this evening – the first race he's ever missed since becoming a full-time driver.
Earnhardt Jr.'s misfortune is another driver's opening. In this case, it will be Regan Smith who will occupy the seat of the No. 88 both tonight and next week at Kansas. For Smith, this is by far the best opportunity he's ever had at the Cup-level and, facing an uncertain future, this will allow him to showcase his talent and that he is deserving of full-time ride in 2013.
Can Smith will replicate what Jamie McMurray did in this race 10 years ago? It was then if you recall, McMurray in just his second start both in Cup and as the fill-in driver for the injured Sterling Marlin, impressively held off Bobby Labonte to earn the out of nowhere win.
Is there another storybook ending waiting to be written? And can Smith write it?
• Six drivers in tonight's field – Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and David Reutimann – all earned their first Cup victories at Charlotte.
• Tonight will be the first race since Sept. 3, 1979 at Darlington that a driver with the last name Earnhardt won't be in the starting lineup.
• Thirty of the previous 34 Chase races have been won by drivers in the Chase.
1. Denny Hamlin
With victories at Kansas and Atlanta, a second at Charlotte in the spring and a third at Kentucky, the 1.5-mile ovals in 2012 have been good to Denny Hamlin. And as has been the case throughout the year on the intermediate tracks, the No. 11 Toyota appears to be strong this weekend, having posted the best 10 consecutive lap average in final practice.
2. Jimmie Johnson
From 2003-05, Jimmie Johnson won five times at Charlotte in a six-race span. However, since then he's been to Victory Lane just once and has more finishes (seven) outside the top 10 than he does inside (six). But throughout practice the 48 car has been consistently one of the quickest, so just maybe Johnson is ready to again reign supreme on the track he once ruled.
3. Kasey Kahne
In May, Kasey Kahne led the final 44 laps and rolled by over four seconds to what was his first win of the season. And although he has a different chassis underneath him, Kahne was among the fastest in practice and looks more than capable of completing the Charlotte sweep – something he did in 2006.