News & Media

Season's real excitement comes via wild-card race

August 08, 2011, Joe Menzer,

For those willing to wait out the one hour, 40-minute rain delay in the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, the rewards were tremendous.

There was the obvious feel-good story -- well, it felt good for everyone but Brad Keselowski -- of Keselowski winning the race in his No. 2 Dodge despite a broken left ankle suffered five days earlier during a test session that went awry at Road Atlanta. And despite the severe pain in that ankle and from other injuries suffered in the testing crash, Keselowski's mental outlook could not have been brighter after reaching Victory Lane for the second time this season.

"The fact that the wild-card scenario is drawing so much attention is a clear indication that this is the best tweak to the Chase ever executed by NASCAR."


"It's been a hell of a week," he told reporters afterward, in summing it up.

There were a number of sub-stories to come out of the race at the 2.5-mile triangle as well. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch banged on each other on the final lap coming toward the start/finish line, and then exchanged angry words afterward. They left everyone with the distinct impression that they aren't done messing with each other on the race track. Joey Logano, whose No. 20 Toyota seemingly was the car to beat early on, saw his chance to win evaporate when the rain clouds disappeared and then had his hopes for a strong finish dashed by a late flat tire.

But when examining the big picture following Sunday's race, the most compelling sub-story of all also was tinted heavily with a Keselowski flavor. We're talking wild card, of course.

Wild-card outlook

The fact that the wild-card scenario is drawing so much attention is a clear indication that this is the best tweak to the Chase ever executed by NASCAR.

Critics of the Chase have long argued that the biggest problem with it is that it puts the week-in, week-out focus too much on solely the top 10 or 12 drivers in the point standings, especially as the season enters its latter stages. The other 30-plus drivers are all but forgotten, such critics say.

First of all, that's not entirely true. If non-Chase contenders want to gain some attention, it's no different than as before. Run better. Win some races or at least contend for them, and you'll surely garner your share of attention from the media and otherwise.

Secondly, if there were only four or five guys with a legitimate shot of the championship at this point, wouldn't the focus be even more narrowed on them? The bottom line is that now, with the addition of the wild-card element to the Chase, watching these guys jockey for the final positions in the sport's 12-driver playoffs has never been more exciting.

You know the rules by now. But for a quick review, the top 10 in points after the first 26 races automatically qualify for the Chase -- but as of this year, the final two Chase slots are reserved for wild-card entries. Those would be the two drivers with the most race victories who also are in the top 20 in points.

Keselowski obviously firmed up his chances to make the Chase as a wild-card entry, but he wasn't the only mover and shaker in a wild-card picture that looks wilder by the minute.

Denny Hamlin, the master at Pocono of late, led a bunch of laps early but was cursed by pit-road mistakes late in the 500-mile race. He finished 15th and fell to 11th in the points standings, but is still Chase-eligible as a wild-card selection. Keselowski, still a precarious 18th in the standings even after Sunday's statement win, would at the moment claim the other wild-card spot.

Much to be settled

But this wild-card deal is far from over.

Paul Menard and David Ragan both have race victories as well. They have five races left to earn a second victory and try to finish above Keselowski in the points. (After Sunday's race, Menard was 14th and Ragan 19th).

Then there are all the guys who are capable of winning races this season, but haven't. That includes a gaggle of drivers such as Clint Bowyer (12th in points), Greg Biffle (13th), Mark Martin (15th), Kasey Kahne (16th) and even, presumably, the hard-luck Logano (20th). Heading into this Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, it's not far-fetched to say it's too late for road-course specialists Juan Montoya (21st) and Marcos Ambrose (23rd) -- or even A.J. Allmendinger (17th but never a race winner in NASCAR) to become part of the wild-card conversation. But they have to win, not just finish strong, at The Glen.

And what about two of the sport's giants who currently are hanging on in the top 10 in points but have yet to win races? There are only two -- Tony Stewart in ninth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10th. Neither is assured a Chase spot just yet and will be in trouble in the wild-card scenario if they fall out of the top 10 and don't have a victory.

Keselowski said it best following his win Sunday. No one outside of the top six to eight in the current points standings is assured of anything yet.

"I think winning two races is probably really good for our Chase hopes, gives us pretty high odds if we were playing poker," Keselowski said. "But nothing is 100 percent until it's 100 percent. So there are lots of races left. We have to keep plugging away. Maybe if we keep running like this, maybe we can get a third win and we'll be damn near immune, unless we fall out of the top 20."

There are so many variables, so many unknowns. With five races left until the Chase, there are more names being thrown about as having a legitimate shot at a championship than in years. For if a guy like Keselowski can win multiple races to get in -- even on a broken ankle -- who's to say for certain what can or can't happen next?

And quite honestly, that's pretty darn cool.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.