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Track Smack: Who will be dealt the final wild card?

August 02, 2012, , NASCAR.com

Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon are all in the hunt for the Chase's final wild-card spot as the season winds down. (Getty)

Other topics included: Junior's status as points leader and the Chase's top spot

1. It's Track Smack -- crystal-ball edition. Kyle Busch continues to maintain the second wild card spot. With six races remaining in the Sprint Cup regular season, can he hang on to it?

Mark Aumann: I'm tempted to say yes, no matter what. But I think he'd feel a whole lot better with another win somewhere along the way. It was definitely good for him to finally put together a complete race at Indy. That team seemed completely snake-bitten for almost two months.

David Caraviello: I go back and forth on this. As far as sheer driving talent goes, he's the obvious choice to take that second spot. I don't know if there's anyone else in the running who's the pure driver Kyle is, and that's not any disrespect to anyone -- the kid is just that good. But we're still waiting on him to reach out and take it, and he hasn't done that yet. Uuntil he does, there's going to be that nugget of doubt lingering in my mind.

Jarrod Breeze: Had you asked me that a few weeks ago I would have said yes. Now, I'm not so sure anymore. Something just seems to be amiss with him. Maybe it's the added pressure of Nationwide ownership, or the simple fact he's not having as much fun because he isn't driving in the Nationwide Series as much and in the Truck Series at all. Across all three series, he is the best driver going, but he just doesn't seem to have that swagger right now.

Mark Aumann: Carl Edwards' troubles on Sunday pretty much locked in the top 10, barring any utter disasters. With so few races left between now and Richmond, I really think two wins pretty much clinches one of the two wild card spots. So, you're looking at Kasey Kahne and whomever can get to two first. And don't forget that Kyle's teammate won at Pocono the first go-round. Wouldn't that put some pressure on the rest of the contenders if Joey Logano came back and repeated this weekend?

Jarrod Breeze: It will take much more than one good finish at Indy to convince me. I don't look at those big tracks as a proving ground, so I need to see a little more. As far-fetched as it once seemed, Jeff Gordon could sneak in there. And I thought Ryan Newman was done, but he's right on Kyle's heels.

Sprint Cup Series

Wild-card standings
RankDriverPointsWin
2. (WC) Kyle Busch5451
3.R. Newman5361
4.Joey Logano5331
5.Carl Edwards 5670
6.Jeff Gordon5640

David Caraviello: And yet, Kyle had a darn good weekend at Indianapolis, Jarrod. I don't know if Kyle necessarily needs to win again -- that bar is set by the wild-card contenders as a whole, and right now one victory is enough to snag that second spot behind Kasey Kahne -- but it certainly helps to run well like he did Saturday. We saw a lot of this last year -- all these wild-card hopefuls staggering to the finish line, no one beyond Brad Keselowski really acting like they wanted to seize it. We could very well have that again, If so, runs like Kyle had Sunday might be good enough.

Mark Aumann: So much of this is confidence. When the equipment is virtually equal and everybody behind the wheel is talented, it comes down to shifts in momentum. And the No. 18 guys had almost none -- until Sunday. Now there's the feeling that perhaps they've survived their low point and can move on. And they've got a 15-point cushion over Newman.

David Caraviello: Mark, no question, that butt-kicking Joey laid on the field at June in Pocono looms out there. But this week is his Chase, I think. He duplicates the feat from two months ago and gets that second victory at the same track, he has a huge advantage on everyone else. He doesn't, I think he's on the edge. Not sure where another victory might come for Logano, given how they've been running the last few weeks. It might be a one-weekend ball game for him.

Jarrod Breeze: I don't discount a strong run from Kyle, especially from a guy with a track record of having a lot of them on any type of track -- just like I don't take into consideration his three-week spell of engine troubles having a reflection on the driver. But, after those three weeks, he's been rather pedestrian for his standards, with a best of a 10th-place finish in the four races leading up to Indy. Of course, Gordon still needs a win, as does Edwards. If one or both of those two guys win in the coming weeks, it's going to be a free-for-all -- and a lot of fun.

Mark Aumann: Oh, yeah, Jarrod. I agree. You get a win from Gordon and the whole scenario changes.

David Caraviello: Does it? Jeff is 24 points behind Kyle at this point. He needs to not only win, but make up a lot of ground. Is he capable of doing that?

Mark Aumann: But I guess that's the prevailing argument for anyone outside of the top 10 right now. They're in that position because they've been pedestrian. What separates them is that some of them got to Victory Lane once (or in Kasey's case, twice).

Mark Aumann: Yeah, with the way Gordon has been making up ground over the past 10 races or so, I think a win probably allows him to pass Newman and may put him right on Busch's heels.

Jarrod Breeze: It's not just Gordon; I'm just throwing him into the mix. But all Edwards needs is to win, which given the way his season has gone may be too much to expect. And Newman is right there, too. And if Logano gets that second win ... But if I may paraphrase David from earlier, I do think the wild card is Kyle's to lose.

David Caraviello: Here's the thing about Kyle: Historically, Pocono is his worst track of the venues that remain. He's won everywhere else, in some cases multiple times. Guy has five victories at Bristol, and four at Richmond. So we may be asking ourselves this question for the next six weeks, because you can't discount the guy until we get through those short tracks on the eve of the Chase.

Mark Aumann: The next few weeks could be telling. Kyle finished outside of the top 30 on the first go-round at Michigan and Pocono, and had an awful day at Bristol. But his win came at Richmond. And that's the whole thing, David. That Richmond win -- and his success at Bristol -- tell me you can't count him out until the end of this thing.

David Caraviello: Just like you can never count Mark Aumann out of Track Smack.

Mark Aumann: Hey, I can still run as fast as I could when I was 18. It just takes me a lot longer to shift into high gear!

David Caraviello: Careful you don't miss a shift. It is Pocono week, after all.

2. Thanks to a career-best finish at Indianapolis, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on top of the Sprint Cup points standings for the first time since 2004. Will he still be there when we get to Richmond on the eve of the Chase?

Jarrod Breeze: Chances are pretty good. Only three other drivers have a legitimate shot of supplanting him at the moment, and, of the three, the only one I would say could do it is the one farthest back -- Jimmie Johnson, who is 27 points out.

Sprint Cup Series

Points standings
RankDriverPointsBehind
2.M. Kenseth717-14
3.G. Biffle709-22
4.J. Johnson704-27
5.D. Hamlin667-64
6.K. Harvick653-78
7.M. Truex Jr.653-78
8.T. Stewart652-79
9.B. Keselowski649-82
10.C. Bowyer643-88

David Caraviello: OK, the Kyle Busch question seems easy compared to this one. Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. have enough staying power to remain atop the standings for another six weeks? Goodness, that's a tough call. I'm torn. On the one hand, he's easily been the steadiest, most consistent driver all season, which is why he's been so high in the points virtually all year. But does he have that explosiveness of Jimmie Johnson, who is 27 out? And wasn't Indy just a bobble not of his own making for Matt Kenseth, who gave up the lead? So many factors.

Mark Aumann: Hmm. When you look at the schedule, it's a toss up. Junior's not really fond of road courses, but was gangbusters (the word of the day) at Michigan. I just don't know if he can keep putting together enough top fives over the next six races to do it. And, like you guys, I think his teammate might have the best chance at being No. 1 when we get to Richmond. And Roush Fenway is traditionally very good on horsepower tracks like Pocono and Michigan, where you'd expect Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth to make up ground.

Jarrod Breeze: No question that one would expect a win from Johnson more so than Junior, but didn't you yourself David say that Jeff Gordon has a pretty tall order to catch up to Kyle Busch, 24 points out? So can Johnson come from 27 back to catch Earnhardt?

Mark Aumann: That's only averaging five positions a race. Although "only" is a misnomer. Junior's finishing average in 2012 is 8.0. That would mean Jimmie would have to average a third-place finish to pass him.

David Caraviello: JB, I think JJ has run much better on average this season than Gordon. That kind of gap is a larger or smaller number depending on who we're talking about and how they're running.

Jarrod Breeze: I agree with you, David, as I also said I think Johnson has the best chance of overtaking Earnhardt. I also think, though, if Gordon and Kyle continue at their paces, and if Gordon wins a race, he'll be in the thick of the hunt. I am just playing defense attorney, here.

David Caraviello: Mark, I think other than Watkins Glen, the tracks actually set up pretty well for Earnhardt. He had a great car at Pocono in June, and might have won had he not needed to stop for gas. He won at Michigan. He has victories at Atlanta, Bristol, and Richmond, the latter of which might be one of his best tracks. So the opportunity is clearly there in front of him. The question is: Is Jimmie Johnson about to go on one of those patented tears? That, of course, would change everything.

Mark Aumann: But, playing devil's advocate with you, David: How long ago were all those wins? Obviously, before 2009.

David Caraviello: Details, details, details. OK, how about this -- average finish at Bristol of 11th, average finish at Richmond of 13th, average finish at Atlanta of 12.8. That's decent enough to make you like his chances at those places, particularly given how they've run this year.

Mark Aumann: Would we have guessed that Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon would be winless at this point of the season? Or that Kyle Busch would be 11th in points? It's hard to see the future ... especially when your momentum can shift so dramatically. See Kyle Busch for details. And Earnhardt finally broke through at Michigan -- and set off a raucous victory celebration both on the track and in the stands. But I'm not sure I'm sold on the "Junior's marvelous here, here and here" just yet.

David Caraviello: I think we all might be able to agree on this -- Dale Jr. isn't just going to give it away. We're well beyond wheels-falling-off time here with the No. 88 team -- they're a serious contender, and they're in this for the long haul. The question becomes whether anyone is able to take it away from him. Fourteen points is a nice margin to have right off the bat, but as we've seen with Matt Kenseth, these things can go away quickly. Just a few weeks ago Matt had a 25-point lead, the biggest of the season. Now he's 14 down. Things can change that quickly.

Jarrod Breeze: Hold on there. I never said Dale Jr. is a serious contender. I think he will probably head into Richmond with the points lead but it's doubtful he will leave there with it. And he'll pretty much have to start all over.

David Caraviello: JB ... you don't think Dale Jr. is a serious contender for the title? Have you been consumed by Reds baseball all season?

Mark Aumann: I think even Junior realizes running sixth every week won't cut it. He said after Indy that winning more will be crucial. I'd feel a whole lot better about his chances if he won again, Michigan notwithstanding. Especially since Jimmie and Denny Hamlin seem to be gangbusters.

Jarrod Breeze: I know Junior drives every week with probably more pressure than anyone, especially when he was in the long, long, long winless streak. But this seems to be his best year yet to win a title. He's going to have some catching up to do in the Chase ... can he do it? No sell.

David Caraviello: Mark, it goes back to the previous question, and why another wild-card hopeful can't break through -- how you're running is how you're running. We're beyond the point of great swings in performance one way or the other. Junior has been a rock. There's no reason to believe, given what we've seen from those guys all season, that he's going to waver significantly down the stretch. Does he need to win more to win the title? Sure. He realizes that. But right now? He's not the points leader by accident.

Mark Aumann: Here's the key: Junior's average starting position is 14.6 -- easily the worst of any of the top contenders not named Stewart. So, he's making up more than six positions each race. That may be hard to continue under the pressures of the Chase.

David Caraviello: No question. Everything's going to change in the Chase. He's going to be playing from behind. But right now ... they're keepin' on keepin' on, and nothing wrong with that. And it may take the Return of Jimmie Johnson to knock him off that top perch before Richmond.

Jarrod Breeze: I think so, David ... I think that's the only way it could happen.

Mark Aumann: Not another summer sequel!

Jarrod Breeze: Gangbusters II -- Jimmie Rides Again.

3. Jimmie Johnson sent a message at Indianapolis, recording his third victory of the season. Of the drivers with three wins -- Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski -- which has the best chance of being the top overall Chase seed?

Jarrod Breeze: Pretty tough call here. First thought immediately springs to Johnson, but we all know how well Stewart can run in the August heat and I will never, ever discount Keselowski. I think he has proven himself over that past couple of years.

David Caraviello: It always comes back to Johnson, doesn't it? Right now, I don't see how you can't give a decided edge to Jimmie. Look at how that team has gotten better throughout the year, and what they showed Sunday at perhaps the hardest track on the Cup circuit. Plus, if nobody wins again and it comes down to points, JJ has a rather nice cushion on the rest of the field. But I think someone will win again. And I think I know who it might be.

Mark Aumann: Boy, based on the way that team dominated a big, flat track -- sort of like Pocono with one more corner -- you'd think Five-Time would be the answer. But it seems like a trick question to me. I'm going with an answer not on the table: Denny Hamlin. He's got Pocono and Richmond still to go -- two of his best tracks. That would give him four wins. And yeah, that's cheating. I gladly accept suspension and a fine.

David Caraviello: Mark, no question Denny has been the invisible man in all this. They've run very well, they have a few wins, they have a bunch of seconds and thirds that make you think they're capable of winning again. When the Chase starts, that guy is going to be a serious factor, even if he thinks he gets overlooked sometime. All that will change come September. Right now, though, he's in line behind three other guys for that top spot. Oh, that miscommunication over the pit stop at New Hampshire. Little things indeed can mean a lot.

Jarrod Breeze: I think Kyle Busch wins at Watkins Glen, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond and steals the top spot at the last moment. And Jeff Gordon wins the other two races -- Pocono and Michigan -- to get the second wild-card.

David Caraviello: JB, I almost want to see that happen just from an entertainment standpoint. It would be wild to watch! And the crazy thing is, it's not as outlandish as it might seem. Very unlikely, yes, but not outlandish.

Jarrod Breeze: As much as the fight for the final wild card may be, the push for the top overall seed in the Chase should be just as interesting. Johnson and Stewart certainly have the track records this time of year. I still like Keselowski -- he just seems to jump up and make his presence known just when you aren't expecting. And Mark is right on with Hamlin. I guess you could say Mark is coming on like gangbusters?

Mark Aumann: Oh, that would be awesome, Jarrod. Although I think Watkins Glen could very well be Tony's fourth win. I think NASCAR should have a repechage like the Olympics -- what we would call a "second chance" race -- although I think I like the idea just because I like saying repechage.

David Caraviello: Nothing like a good repechage. If we're just talking about the three guys knotted for the top spot at the moment, it's fairly easy to look at this track-by-track. Pocono is a dead heat. Watkins Glen, edge Stewart. Michigan, edge Keselowski. Bristol, edge Keselowski. Richmond, tie Johnson and Stewart. Wow, you break it down that way, Johnson isn't nearly as much of a lock as he might seem right now.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah, but Johnson seems to have those intangibles. Can't be a five-time-in-a-row champ without it.

Mark Aumann: Interesting analysis. Of course, then Johnson gets all his favorite tracks in the Chase.

David Caraviello: No question, JB. But as you pointed out, the race for that top spot is every bit as interesting right now as the race for the wild card. Perhaps even more so, given how much better the guys at the front end of the standings are running.

Jarrod Breeze: But don't sleep on Keselowski. I certainly won't be surprised if he ends up No. 1 post-Richmond. Remember, the wild card hurt him last year. He would've been among the leaders starting the Chase in the previous year's format.

Mark Aumann: Yep, don't think Brad's going to have to give back his bonus points this time around. Unless Kyle Busch goes on JB's predicted tear! And then he'll be gangbusters!

David Caraviello: And Brad will be the favorite going into Bristol, where few have been better as of late. Wouldn't it be interesting if Bristol comes down to Keselowski and Busch, both of them needing the victory for very different reasons.

Jarrod Breeze: And neither afraid of doing what it takes to secure that win?

Mark Aumann: On the resurfaced Bristol? I'd pay to see that.

David Caraviello: Some cage-rattling might be in store. Gangbusters all around!

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