Wild-card bringing big-time excitement
One victory is only a maybe now for making the 2011 Chase. It may take two.
This is going to get good, folks. The switch this season to two wild-card spots for making the Chase, based on wins, is the best move NASCAR has made in the playoff era.
Brad "Broken Foot" Keselowski looks to have one wild-card spot secured with his second victory of the season Sunday at Pocono.
Or does he? Keselowski still has to stay within the top 20 to remain eligible for one of the two wild-card slots. He's 18th now, but only 19 points ahead of 21st-place Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya is headed for his best track on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Watkins Glen, the road course where he won last year. Keselowski finished 20th last year at The Glen.
Even with two victories, Keselowski still has to race well to maintain a top-20 spot. It's all that matters to him now.
He gladly would give up a million dollars to make the Chase. His victory Sunday made him eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown, a $1 million bonus for a driver who wins at Atlanta on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.
"That's pretty cool," Keselowski said Sunday. "I'd like to win that money, but I'd much rather get [the team] in the Chase. I would throw away the money if I could promise them we'd be in the Chase and have a good run at the championship. Runs like this are great and show that we can do it."
Consider where things would be now without the wild card, five races before the playoff begins.
Clint Bowyer in 12th would be three points ahead of Greg Biffle and 13 points in front of Paul Menard for the final Chase spot. So you would have three guys vying for the final playoff position in the old format where the top 12 made the Chase based solely on points.
Not bad, but nothing compared to what Sprint Cup has now with the wild card. The in-or-out scenarios seem almost endless. Even 23rd-place Marcos Ambrose, a road course star who still has some hope of earning a spot with a win this weekend .
Uncertainty is the name of the game, including two drivers inside the top 10. Tony Stewart is ninth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 10th -- the cutoff point for making the Chase on points -- but neither driver has won a race. Drivers in the top 10 after Richmond are in the Chase, plus the two wild-cards.
One blown engine or one crash could drop them outside the top 10 and out of the Chase unless they win one -- or more -- of the next five races.
Denny Hamlin, in the 11th spot, can't feel too safe, either. Hamlin has one win, so he holds down a wild-card spot for now as the driver with the best points position among the guys with one victory.
However, Menard in 14th and David Ragan in 19th also have one victory. If one of them wins again and Hamlin doesn't, Hamlin's out.
After an early crash at Pocono, Ragan's only realistic shot now is a second victory in the next five weeks. He's 62 points behind Hamlin.
"There's still a lot of racing left," Ragan said Sunday. "There's going to be some bad luck for some of these other guys we're racing for it. You don't want to give up anything and we gave up some points today, so that means we've got to be extra aggressive these next few races."
The proverbial scoreboard watching has begun. Teams are calculating every move based on how it could help them earn a Chase spot.
During the long rain delay Sunday at Pocono, Menard said crew chief Slugger Labbe was "crunching the numbers." Based on how the drivers would have finished if the race hadn't restarted, Labbe and Menard were happy guys.
"I think that moves us to the first wild card,'' said Menard, who was 11th at the time. "If Joey [Logano] wins the race, he's the second wild card. A lot can happen. If it goes back green, I think we can move back up there in the top 10."
He did, but it didn't help. Logano finished 26th and Menard fell out of a wild-card spot -- even though he finished one spot better after the restart -- because of the drivers who finished ahead of him.
A second victory could seal things for Menard or Ragan, but one win might do it for Bowyer or Biffle. One win would place them in line to challenge Hamlin for the final wild-card spot.
Anything can happen in the next five races. It's going to get crazy. Some teams will go all-out to win, while others will try to play it safe to stay in the top 10. And some others, like Kevin Harvick, can do whatever the heck they want.
Harvick is fifth in the standings and has three victories. He's virtually locked in, but he remembers the stress of fighting for a Chase spot in years past.
"We've been fortunate the last couple of years to be on this side of the fence," Harvick said at Pocono. "But we've been on the other side fighting for our life in what would be 10th, 12th or 14th, just hoping you don't make a mistake and miss it by a few points.
"This time of year, there is nothing worse than being in that position and knowing that everything you do matters. Whether it's a parts failure or a mistake or whatever the case may be, it all matters right now."
It matters more now, to more teams with more options, than ever before. This wild card is living up to its name.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.