News & Media

Caraviello: This year's wild card race could be wild indeed

April 04, 2012, David Caraviello,

The Sprint Cup standings are getting crowded, and not just at the top. Greg Biffle leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. by six points as NASCAR takes a long exhale of an off week, with a quartet of drivers knotted up behind them. But given that the Chase looms and the points will be reset for the final 10-event dash to the championship, the real race to watch right now is further down. And it's every bit at interesting, even if the drama surrounding it is a little more painful to watch.

Six races in, and the battle for those precious two wild-card berths to the NASCAR playoff is already taking shape, and it has the potential to include a few drivers whose megawatt presence will only make it more difficult for anyone who's not locked in. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have each suffered through rotten starts to this season, and both of them are treading water right now at a time of year when it's getting tougher to make up big chunks of ground in a single week. Certainly there's a long way to go, and certainly the Nos. 24 and 18 programs are good enough to get things righted in a hurry, but at the moment you can't help but imagine a wild-card scramble involving both a four-time champion and the season lap leader from a year ago.

Chasing the Chase

Jeff Gordon is one of eight former Chase drivers currently full time outside the top 10 in points. His wild-card hopes are additionally precarious.

Pos.DriverBehind 10th
12.Brad Keselowski-14
15.Jeff Burton-25
16.Kyle Busch-38
17.Juan Montoya-43
21.*Jeff Gordon-53
26.*Kurt Busch-73
31.*Kasey Kahne-96

It's clear that the wild card is very much a developing process, as was the Chase itself for its first few years, as teams searched for the best ways to manage it. Gone are the days when a single win was considered enough to steal one of those extra berths. Given the competitive balance we've seen in the past year, two wins don't appear to guarantee anything, either. For all the party-crashing craziness that seemed inevitable as the season wore on, the 12 drivers who qualified for last year's Chase wound up as the top 12 drivers in the standings. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski used different methods to get there, but the final result was yet another testament to the power of consistency.

One year, though, does not make for a representative sample. And to be honest, 2011 might have been something of an aberration, given that the number of first-time winners (five) and number of different winners (18) kept several different drivers in the mix through late summer. Until eventual champion Tony Stewart caught fire in the Chase, there wasn't any single driver who dominated in the victory column as we've seen so many times in the past -- like 2010, when Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson combined for 14 wins, or in 2008 when Edwards won nine times. Something like that happens again (and Stewart certainly appears capable of it at the present), and there's considerably less left on the table for other drivers who need a win or two to insert themselves into the mix.

So for wild-card purposes, what happened last season should stay precisely there. If anything, odds are likely against a second consecutive campaign as unpredictable as last year. Powerhouse operations such as Roush Fenway and Stewart-Haas are already beginning to assert themselves with multiple wins. Victory Lane has proven so difficult to break into, that Rick Hendrick has been left hauling around those 200th win caps -- the guy's been stuck on 199 since this past fall -- every week. Again, it's early. But early trends have a way of cementing themselves, and teams often spend the meat of the season either riding the wave or digging out based on their performances in the first few months of the year. We're quickly approaching the time where the feeling-out period is over, and teams have what they have, and expectations have to be managed as a result.

For some teams, that's already clear, and the wild card looks like a life raft in an empty, expansive ocean. Consider that at this point, the top 10 in points seems a very strong group -- and Carl Edwards, Keselowski, Busch, Gordon and Kasey Kahne aren't in there. It's one thing to go through a summer where your pool of wild-card candidates is comprised primarily of first-time winners and unexpected visitors to Victory Lane. It would be quite another to watch serious NASCAR heavyweights, programs that set the bar not at Chase qualification, but at title contention, slug it out even before the championship field is set. And yet, if the early weeks of this season are any indication, that's exactly what we might get.

Part of that comes from improved depth in the series -- the Michael Waltrip Racing cars are obviously much improved from this point last season, and two MWR drivers are currently in the top 10, and given how strong Martin Truex Jr. has been since this past fall it's a good bet at least one of them will stay there for a while. But regardless of the reason, those guaranteed Chase spots only become more valuable, and the competition for them only becomes more intense, and the prospect of major stars getting squeezed out into wild-card territory becomes more inevitable. No question there are plenty of candidates to become this season's Keselowski, a driver who wallowed deep in the standings for the first third of last year before figuring it all out and rocketing into championship contention. But there's also no guarantee we'll see something like that again.

Granted, there's plenty of potential in many of those big names to be found lower in the standings. Gordon is without a top-five finish despite having cars good enough to win almost every week. Busch dominated much of the race two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway, in what was perhaps a harbinger of how scary good he might be on intermediate tracks. Kahne has a rocket ship, but also a new problem every week. Edwards has been weighed down by one poor finish at Bristol. Keselowski has been somewhat uneven, but he also has a race win in his back pocket. Some of those A-listers will almost certainly begin their march north, toward more favorable and more comfortable positions in the standings, but not all of them will. And there aren't enough wild cards for everybody.

It's easy to dismiss early season struggles among top-level teams, thanks to the presence of the wild card and the belief that with a win or two, all will be well again. And that may be the case -- unless other top-level teams are in the same situation, making the job of Chase qualification that much more difficult for everyone trying to get in. Guys like Regan Smith and David Ragan and Paul Menard put on quite a show this past summer, one-upping each other with race wins that made the wild-card picture change almost daily. Now just imagine that same scenario involving drivers such as Gordon and Busch, and perhaps a single wild-card berth left remaining between them. Brace yourself for the possibility of Chase-like intensity in July and August, which could make the summertime heat seem tepid by comparison. For that, you'd better have a ringside seat.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.