WHICH TWO DRIVERS ARE GOING TO GRAB THE WILD-CARD SPOTS?
When NASCAR announced the new points changes and Chase contestant eligibility, it was
welcomed, but cautiously discussed. Would it help the sport or hurt it? Fans and drivers alike seemed to not know what to make of it. The fact was, it was done, and only time would tell if the change would be a bust. I was more than ready to see how it would do, and as it turns out, it's proving pretty darn interesting.
Sure, most of us are marveling at the re-emergence of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who sits just outside the points lead.
Even with zero wins, he is still arguably racing with the most consistency of the season. Good news for Jr Nation-for him to fall into The Wild Card Zone, He would have to average 16th or worse over the next 13 races, while the rest of the top 10 would have to average 10th or better. I just do not see that happening, so I think the 88 team is about a 90% chase lock. Outside of that, the top 12 is no surprise, and are really no closer in points between each other than last year in terms of percentages. Carl Edwards had a nice 40 point lead going into The 5-Hour
Energy 500 at Pocono today, but HMS teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr. have closed that gap to -6 and
-10 respectively, while RCR driver and 3 time winner in 2011 Kevin Harvick (-11) and JGR's 2 race winner Kyle Busch (-31 after a penalty was applied) also gained a lot of points due to Edwards' engine woes, bringing the top
five into a very exciting points race so far this season.
That is all pretty darn awesome, right? That's not even the best part. What is actually getting even more interesting is the wild-card race. It may seem too early to talk about the wild card run, but believe me, it isn't. We are halfway through the regular season. Snuck up on you, didn't it? With only 13 races before the start of The Chase, the next seven races are going to set the stage for the six after that, and finalize who gets the 11th and 12th Chase slots.
The intensity (and potential insanity) of this wild-card chase really just started coming to light, especially today. Jeff Gordon won his second race of the year, and vaulted himself up two spots to 11th. However, he still remains on the bubble of needing his two wins at Phoenix and Pocono to get in the title run. If he were to fall out into the wild-card zone, his two wins could really spoil a team's season who busted their rear ends to get into contention with 0 wins but sitting in 11th or 12th, or teams who got a win and worked extra hard to stay in the top 20 and have a shot at stealing a spot from a team with more points but less wins.
This leads me to Brad Keselowski, with one win, and sitting in 22nd. He is only 13 points out of the top 20, the cutoff in points to earn a Chase spot by number of wins. He needs to get some consistently good finishes going,
because he has several drivers ahead of him that are on the cusp of winning (or could win again) at any time. Marcos Ambrose sits in 21st with two road courses coming up and he could win either one. He was dominating Wine Country last year with a few laps to go and accidentally stalled his car on the final caution, effectively giving the race away to Jimmie Johnson. Also, watch out for AJ Allmendinger, he is showing some promise. He is running stronger this year than ever before with RPM and the FR9 engine and could possibly find the winner's circle for the first time in his career this season. The Dinger sits in a 3 way tie for 16th with Kasey Kahne (who could win again on one of the 1.5 milers coming up) and David Ragan, who is also having a very good year and emerging with Ford's FR9 powerplant. Let's not forget about the always competitive Greg Biffle in 14th, who runs strong at big fast tracks like Michigan (next week), and runs well at a few other upcoming venues. A win will make him a major threat to get in on a wild-card. Juan Pablo Montoya has moved to 13th, and will compete hard with Ambrose and others on the road courses. JPM should also be considered a favorite at The Brickyard, where he dominated before trouble at the end two years ago.
Sitting in 27th with a very exciting win at Darlington is Regan Smith, who needs to gain some consistency with some quick top 10 finishes if he wants to challenge for a wild-card spot, but very well could. These guys are onto something and are qualifying well in 2011, but have found some trouble in a few races.
We currently have drivers from 11th to 27th who will shape the chase for the
wild-card, which honestly, needs a catchy name. In the next few weeks, we should see these drivers starting to run for wins to lock themselves into chase contention, as that cutoff gets closer and closer. Can Ambrose get a win at a road course and get in? Will JPM take a road course win from Ambrose, or win one with Ambrose taking the other? Can Smoke, or a road ringer screw all of that up? Can Montoya win at The Brickyard? Can Biffle win this week at Michigan? Will David Ragan shock the NASCAR world and win on a cookie cutter with that monster engine package? Will Keselowski show some consistency? Can Regan Smith jump on his horse and rocket into the top 20? If he does, will Jeff Gordon fall out of the "safe zone" and say "not so fast" to Smith? I personally love this rule and format, and it hasn't even really formed yet. The madness will begin starting this week at Michigan, and there is no telling how this wild-card Chase will look once it's shortened down to the last four or five races of the regular season. This is gonna be pretty awesome and i'm very excited about the coming weeks.
In my opinion, NASCAR hit a huge home-run with this aspect of the rules and points changes. They have nearly effectively created two chases, and extended interest in the way the seasons shape up, and closing with what could very well be a winner take all race at Miami-Homestead Speedway in November. For what it's worth, I feel this is the best NASCAR season in the past several years, and it is very refreshing to see. When NASCAR said this was an effort to award winning more, they couldn't have been more on the money.