Sprint Summer Showdown adds drama
If you think the Sprint Cup season can't get more exciting than this, think again. In addition to a heated race for wild-card spots, drivers who win a race in August and manage to grab the checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend will win $1 million for their team, $1 million for their charity of choice and $1 million for a lucky fan who picks them to win (see www.sprint.com/speed for details). This competition, dubbed the Sprint Summer Showdown, is great for NASCAR because it brings in the fan's perspective and gives up to five drivers a huge incentive to win at Atlanta.
One of the eligible drivers, Brickyard winner Paul Menard, is now in a unique and exciting position. I think his team is going to go back and look at the car that they're preparing for Atlanta. With so much to gain, they may put more time into wind tunnel testing and the seven-post shaker rig. Menard has an opportunity that none of his teammates have, so they'll want to make sure his car is the best it can be.
But when it comes to this weekend's race at Pocono, Jeff Gordon is definitely the driver to watch. I wouldn't be surprised if he joined Menard in the Summer Showdown pool because his team is cool, calm and collected after a second-place finish at Indy. Never underestimate momentum. Oh, by the way, he happened to win Pocono in June.
Who needs the win most? Without hesitation, Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's been so long since he's seen Victory Lane and his team hasn't proven that they're capable of winning. He's spiraled down to that Chase bubble and if he falls out of 10th with a poor run this weekend, that's a lot of ground to make up in the next six races.
Tony Stewart needs a win, too, but I'm not as concerned about him because we've all seen how he gets hot during these summer months. Literally, I wouldn't be surprised if he picked off one or two wins in the next 10 races.
The wild-card format change, paired with the six-race Summer Showdown, is breathing new life into the top 23 drivers. It's not just the usual suspects anymore. David Ragan is excited about his chances of being a wild card. Somebody like Brad Keselowski, who's on the outside looking in at the No. 21 spot, could be a lock with another win.
Talented drivers can't just continue to plug out top 10 finishes from now to Richmond because, in many cases, that won't be good enough. It's all about the win. And who doesn't love that?
ESPN NASCAR and IndyCar Series pit reporter Jamie Little is an experienced action sports and motorsports reporter. She has served as a pit reporter for ABC's broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 since 2004.
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