- Joe Breeze, Motorsports
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FONTANA, Calif. -- Jimmie Johnson's otherworldly performance Sunday night at Auto Club Speedway was borderline superhuman. But let's not forget the all-important subplot of the Pepsi 500. You know, that little thing they call the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The playoff picture is getting clearer ... sort of.
What do we know heading into Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway?
• Three more drivers clinched Chase berths in Fontana. Johnson (winner), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th) and Jeff Burton (17th) joined points leader Kyle Busch (seventh) and Carl Edwards (sixth) in the 2008 Chase field, leaving seven spots open.
• Greg Biffle, who's sixth in the standings, didn't clinch a spot after finishing second Sunday, but he will just by starting the Richmond race Saturday.
• Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, a six-race winner in 2007, continues to struggle. He tumbled one more spot in the standings, to 10th, after finishing 15th.
• Denny Hamlin strengthened his hold on 11th place and staved off the boys on the bubble with his second consecutive third-place showing.
• Speaking of bubble boys, Clint Bowyer (10th at Fontana), David Ragan (13th) and Kasey Kahne (eighth) remained unchanged in the standings, with Bowyer still holding down the 12th and final spot in the Chase cutoff.
• Tony Stewart had another quiet night, finishing 22nd and falling two spots to eighth.
• Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman continues his free fall out of the Chase picture. He dropped another spot in the standings, to 16th, after a 16th-place run Sunday.
While championship contenders jockey for position next weekend at Richmond (the Chase begins the following week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway), the real dogfight promises to be for that 12th playoff spot.
Bowyer leads Ragan by just 17 points. Kahne is lurking 48 points back.
"It's going to be a battle right down to the end," said Bowyer, who trails Hamlin by 76 points. "Anything can happen at Richmond."
Ragan knows he'll have his hands full. Bowyer won the spring race at Richmond. Ragan finished 17th.
"We've got to have more speed," Ragan pleaded Sunday. "We didn't have the fastest car on the racetrack today. Our AAA team never gave up. We kept working on it, but the bottom line is we've got to qualify good, race good and not have any trouble next week to make the Chase."
Kahne took the cup-half-full approach after a solid outing in Fontana. He said being 48 points out of the last Chase spot is better than being 58 back. Still, he is aware he'll need some help to overcome recent back-to-back 40th-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol to overtake both Ragan and Bowyer.
"We gained a little bit," Kahne said. "Hopefully they have a problem. That's our only way in, I think, because the other two are strong. So we'll see happens there, and other than that, hopefully our Budweiser Dodge will be fast and we can win and gain a bunch of points. Who knows?"
Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn3.com.
12dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information