News & Media

Caraviello: Points system the real wild card in wild-card race

August 13, 2011, David Caraviello,

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Five points.

It sounds like such a narrow margin, a razor-thin gap between drivers, the difference between as many positions on the race track. But if he's still outside the top 10 heading into the final event of the Sprint Cup tour's regular season, five points is all Denny Hamlin would feel comfortable having to make up.

"Going into Richmond, I wouldn't want to be more than five points behind," Hamlin said at Watkins Glen International. "I don't want to be behind to begin with. You feel like you can possibly beat guys on any given week by three, four, five spots, but that's tough to do."

Wild Card Standings

WC Pos.Pts. Pos.DriverWinsPoints
12.11.D. Hamlin1618
--14.P. Menard1587
--19.D. Ragan1556

With five races remaining before the field for NASCAR's championship Chase is decided, the battle for the two wild-card spots is as heated as the fight for position entering the first turn on this historic New York road course. The picture changes almost every week, thanks to a string of unlikely race winners -- first David Ragan, then Paul Menard, then Brad Keselowski -- who have turned what was once a fairly straightforward process into a free-for-all. Win to get in, it once seemed. Not any more. Now there are so many race winners outside the top 10, someone like Juan Montoya or Marcos Ambrose could win here Sunday and still barely make a dent.

Given that scenario, with so many winners effectively cancelling each other out, it could all come down to the most basic of NASCAR elements -- points. Race winners outside the top 10 are now jockeying for position with one another, or trying to ensure they stay in the top 20 to remain eligible for a Chase berth. Those within striking distance of the Chase cutoff are trying to make up ground and get back in. And through it all, everyone involved is dealing with a system they're learning on the fly, attempting to find the true definitions of safe or vulnerable, wondering how much of a points cushion is enough or not enough at all. Because in the wild-card hunt, the real wild card is the points system itself.

It was designed to be easy, and toward that end, it is. One point per position lets drivers know exactly how many spots they need to make up on the race track, something that will greatly simplify things when the circuit convenes at Richmond International Raceway on the night of Sept. 10. Right now, though, nobody is really sure what's realistic to make up in one race, or in a five-week stretch like the one that separates Watkins Glen from the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Like old-school drivers trying to determine what a car needs, they're all doing it by feel.

"I really don't know where the point cushion needs to be to be comfortable," said Kurt Busch, who appears safely inside the top 10, with an 88-point gap between him and the cutoff. "Other than, if you've got 40, then you've got a full race to say you're safe."

And yet it's only that clear for those near the top of the standings who seem to have solidified their position. For the jumble of drivers chasing them, this is all still a great unknown, one that's being revealed only race by race. The gap right now between 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 11th-place Hamlin is 23 points, half the amount that one driver can gain over another in a single race. Among the bubble contenders, the most anyone has gained over the past five weeks -- the same span remaining between now and the Chase -- is 148, by Tony Stewart. The least is 95, by Clint Bowyer. The average gain among the eight most prominent wild-card challengers over the past five races is 119 points, or 24 per race.

"Going into Richmond, I wouldn't want to be more than five points behind. You feel like you can possibly beat guys on any given week by three, four, five spots, but that's tough to do."


Granted, these next five weeks promise to be very different from the previous five, given that three 2.5-mile layouts will be swapped out for a road course and a pair of short tracks, and that drivers on the bubble have already shown a penchant for taking risks -- a la Menard and Keselowski -- that might net them race victories. The run-up to the Chase is traditionally fairly conservative, with drivers around that final spot careful to avoid any big mistakes that might cost them position. In the era of the wild card, that all changes. Over the next five races, it's going to be go big or go home.

"We have five to go, and we just have to obviously try to get win number two," said Menard, the Brickyard 400 winner, who went from wild-card favorite to outsider when Keselowski scored his second victory of the year last week at Pocono. "Obviously, [we'll] take some risks that we might not take otherwise."

Even so, the points picture remains murky. The key to all this might be Hamlin, a driver who is strong enough to push anyone for the championship, but because of mechanical trouble has been ping-ponging back and forth across NASCAR's Mendoza line for 10 weeks. With one victory -- for now; next week it's back to Michigan, where he won earlier in the summer -- and a relatively high points position, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seems a frontrunner for the wild card should things remain as is. But if he leapfrogs into the top 10, a spot suddenly opens for someone like Menard or Ragan or another surprise winner to be determined. That latter scenario hinges on whether Hamlin can make up the 23 points currently between him and 10th, now occupied by Earnhardt.

"It can be overcome," Hamlin said. "There's a mix of some different race tracks that could very well separate things. I don't think that me, the 14 [car of Stewart] or the 88 [of Earnhardt Jr.], the 16 [of Greg Biffle] or the 33 [of Bowyer] -- none of us are going to have a flawless five races. I think that it's going to be the battle over who can be the most consistent is going to be the biggest key or who can sneak in and get a win. So, it's going to be tough to see between the five of us or so how this all plays out."

Shane Wilson hasn't begun to crunch the numbers yet. Bowyer's crew chief said he'll do that with about two races left, but between now and then the emphasis will be on running well and avoiding the DNFs that have knocked his driver 41 points behind the cutoff. "The last couple of races, you look at all the math to figure out what you need to do, what's realistic and what's not," Wilson said. "But right now, you've just got to still execute and race and try to get the best finish you can. The pressure is enough in this series without putting any more on you."

Wins change things, of course, but now so many winners are piling up the focus is shifting back to the points system -- which at the moment is a guessing game. Hamlin has gained 123 points over the past five races, but if he gets to Richmond and he's more than five points out of that final Chase berth, he's going to be nervous. Keselowski has two wins, but he's 10 points north of 20th, the cutoff for playoff eligibility. Ragan and Menard saw their hopes buoyed and then buried, because they're not high enough in points to take advantage of their victories. NASCAR's simplified points system and wild-card format was designed to place an emphasis on winning, and it certainly has. But it's all coming back to a numbers game.

And for the drivers on the bubble, those numbers aren't easy to decipher. This is all very reminiscent of the first season of the Chase, before teams discovered that the conservative route was the preferred way in, and everyone went all-out for the front because the point gaps were so uncomfortably small. Maybe with time, teams will figure out this wild-card format as well. Now, though, everything is new and unknown. What's a comfortable points cushion? What's a vulnerable difference? How much can any driver be realistically expected to make up when the lights go on and Chase berths are on the line? It may be around midnight in Richmond, Va., before we all find out.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.