Tick, tick. The playoffs — yes, playoffs! — are two races away. And there's a lot of high anxiety out there as to which 16 drivers will fill out the dance card.
Spoiler alert: It's not your usual go-to list of stars.
Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all well below the cutoff line. After a Cup break this week, they face must-win scenarios Labor Day weekend at Darlington, S.C., or the subsequent week at Richmond, Va.
Bowyer was never presumed to be a lock, but Logano was. And technically, he did win at Richmond International Raceway in April, setting himself up for the possibility of winning his first Cup title.
But NASCAR determined that Logano's victory was "encumbered" and will not count toward qualifying him for a playoff spot. Logano's No. 22 team was popped for a rear-suspension violation discovered during teardown at the R&D Center in Concord, N.C.
"It's easy for me to complain about having a horrible season and having to dig out of it," Logano said last week at Bristol, Tenn. "In the grand scheme of things, it is going to be OK. I think God puts you in situations like this to try and keep your life in perspective. We have a great life."
As for Earnhardt, he remains the People's Champ and figured to have a solid shot entering his final season of competitive Cup racing.
Earnhardt rambled on before last weekend's race in Bristol about why he hasn't been competitive. It was a stream-of-consciousness deal — he apologized at the end — but very revealing as well.
He lost something along the way when he missed half of last season because of concussion issues. Many times he thought he was never coming back. And then he was, and reality kicked in.
"To be an athlete in any sport you possess instincts and reaction time," Earnhardt said. "You possess these attributes that are above the average individual and you hone those and over the years those are improved and sharpened. And when I got hurt, I lost all of that. I lost all of my advantage to being a race car driver.
" … I thought that I could come back and do well. There are a lot of things that play a role in being competitive. I think that I'm healthy and I'm happy and thrilled that I'm healthy. I still think I can drive a race car, but there is really no excuse for us not performing well or meeting expectations."
My two-cents take: Junior lost his competitive mojo along the way, and he's never going to get it back. And there's nothing wrong with that, given what lies ahead: Health and family first.
We all know "Rowdy" Kyle Busch is an excellent wheelman. His triple crown at Bristol last weekend only solidifies the legend.
Bur he is also very sharp navigating through the tumultuous world of social media. He mixes it up frequently, unlike other athletes who ignore the Twitter trolls. And he brings friends to the party/food fight.
"I can't fight as much as I want to fight on social," he said. "There's a lot of trolls out there, so my guys do it for me. I appreciate them and being able to do that. It's awesome to have a legion of fans no matter if they're the biggest ones or the 50% ones or whatever.
"It's just a matter of being able to win people's hearts whether it be outracing, outdriving and outperforming people on the race track or sometimes their antics. Some people like it; some people don't. A lot of people like a lot of other drivers who were popular and some didn't either, so I don't care. I am who I am."
NASCAR is getting fancy on the Interwebs. For the first time in the sport's history, NASCAR will live-stream an in-car camera on Twitter for all 10 playoff races.
The technology kicks in at Chicagoland Speedway. The live camera stream can be accessed via its official Twitter handle, @NASCAR, and NASCAR.twitter.com.
"Through the in-car camera live stream on Twitter, our fans will have another compelling vantage point of the NASCAR playoffs, where the energy and intensity of stage racing will be elevated to a whole new level," said Steve Phelps, NASCAR's executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer. "To provide this level of access on Twitter throughout the 10-week playoffs is a fantastic way to complement the viewing experience on NBC Sports and the NBC Sports app."