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“We came through when we needed to and had another good points day,” said Busch. “We’re creeping up in the points and need to avoid major slips in the next nine races.”

_ Stewart: The three-time champion won at Dover last month and that victory is enough to make him eligible for a wild-card berth.

But his situation is shaky because he’s tied with Aric Almirola for 16th in the standings and he could find himself locked out. It’s a real possibility considering Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle, who have one win each, aren’t securely inside the top 10 and Kasey Kahne is 11th with just one victory.

Working against Stewart is that he really hasn’t been running all that well this season. The No. 14 team had only one top-10 finish before Memorial Day. He was seventh at Charlotte and won at Dover for his first back-to-back top-10s all year. He carried the momentum into Pocono and Michigan with a pair of top-fives and he’d suddenly climbed from 21st in the standings to 10th.

But the last two weeks have been two steps back, with a 28th at Sonoma and a 20th-place finish Sunday.

“Not the greatest showing, but we did what we could with it,” he shrugged.

_ Denny Hamlin: He’s never missed the Chase since his 2006 rookie season, but time is running out on Hamlin’s comeback story this year.

In fairness, a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back sidelined him for four races and likely cost him any chance at the Chase, anyway. But he returned determined to grab a wild-card. He finished second at Darlington in his first full race back, then won the pole at Charlotte and finished fourth to go from 31st in points to 24th.

He won the pole the next week at Dover, but a crash ended his streak of top-five finishes. He was also wrecked at Sonoma and had a hard hit Sunday at Kentucky. Now he’s 25th in points and must win over the next nine weeks to keep his Chase hopes going. At this stage, it will likely take him at least two wins to make it happen.

Team owner Joe Gibbs dismissed talk of Hamlin getting out of the car anytime soon to fully heal, insisting the goal is to salvage the season.

“I think Denny wants to stay after it and we have a chance to get some wins,” Gibbs said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? We could get hot. I know he’ll be the favorite at several of these race tracks we have down the stretch over these next nine weeks. Who knows? Maybe a miracle in there. You can’t have a great comeback unless you’re behind, so we’ll just go after it and do the best we can. He’s got a good attitude and we’ll keep swinging.”