We are starting to witness the impact NASCAR’s new “wildcard” rule has had on the drivers and races this season. Its purpose was to put more emphasis on winning rather than points racing. The result has been fantastic, with more gambling and risk taking than ever that has seen surprise first time winners such as Regan Smith and Paul Menard. Now, here we are with just five races left until the Chase, and it is still a wide open race for the two wildcard spots. Brad Keselowski has set the bar by winning his second race, meaning guys 11th through 20th will have to work that much harder in the upcoming month. Here is a look at the Chase hopefuls, along with their total wins at the remaining “regular season” tracks and their chances of making the Chase.
*Denny Hamlin – Points Behind 10th: -23 Wins: Four*
Hamlin has experienced the championship runner-up hangover several other drivers have gone through in recent years, currently sitting outside the top 10 in points with only one win. However, that win at Michigan has put him in one of the two wildcard spots. Now his problem is, with Keselowski winning again, another victory by David Ragan or Paul Menard would knock him out of that second spot. Performance has been way off for the No. 11 team in 2011, but the biggest issue seems to have been the team beating themselves.
Such was evident this past Sunday, when his pit crew cost him a potential top 5 by missing a lug nut on their final stop. This has hurt their consistency, as they should have a few more top 10s than what the record shows. Hamlin’s best hopes of making the Chase will likely come down to race 26 at Richmond. The only man that has been able to beat him there as of late is his teammate, Kyle Busch. It will be a nail biter if you are a Hamlin fan, but expect to see him competing for the championship later this year.
*Clint Bowyer – Points Behind 10th: -41 Wins: One*
At the conclusion of the Sonoma race in June, Bowyer was sitting eighth in points after a strong fourth place effort. Since then, he has failed to record a top 10 and has fallen to 12th in the standings. With the exception of Menard, the entire Richard Childress organization seems to be struggling, so it will be interesting to see if they can turn it around. Bowyer is also dealing with an uncertain future in 2012 that may be affecting his performance this year. He is known more for his consistency than winning, so his best shot is qualifying through points. To do that, he desperately needs to break out of this slump.
*Greg Biffle – Points Behind 10th: -44 Wins: Two*
Is Biffle starting to show signs of life? He does have two consecutive top 10 finishes – matching his longest streak of the year. The last part is important though, because it shows he hasn’t had any sort of stability all year. With just one top 5 so far (which is fewer than his total number of crew chiefs in 2011), Biffle’s chances are slim. He should contend for the win at Michigan, where he led 68 laps in the June race, but a single win will likely not make the cut. Being over a full race behind 10th place with only five races left, it’s probably too little too late for Biffle.
*Paul Menard – Points Behind 10th: -54 Wins: Zero*
To show the craziness of the new wildcard rule, Menard went from being a Chaser by scoring his first career win at Indy to dropping out that very next week despite finishing 10th. He has proven that he can win on the Cup level, but he will need to do it at least once more to make the Chase. If not, his hopes rest upon Denny Hamlin cracking the top 10 or Keselowski falling back out of the top 20.
*Kasey Kahne – Points Behind 10th: -74 Wins: Four*
This has really been a typical season for Kahne, believe or not. Factor in that he is driving for a lame duck team, one that struggled mightily last year at that, you could argue that he is actually having a good year. Being five spots out of 10th with five races before the Chase, there is no way he makes it on points. Like most around him, he will likely need to pull off two wins to qualify, which isn’t going to happen.
*Mark Martin – Points Behind 10th: -74 Wins: Thirteen*
Martin has a good history at the next five races, as the win total indicates. In this case, those numbers are deceiving because he has shown no signs of strength this year. You have to figure with all the recent strategy being involved that it would play into crew chief Lance McGrew’s favor. With Kenny Francis taking his job next year, McGrew has nothing to lose by making risky calls. They gambled at Indy to get a solid top 10, and expect them to gamble as much as possible in the next month. Maybe it will pay off and get the No. 5 team a win, but it won’t be good enough for a Chase spot.
*AJ Allmendinger – Points Behind 10th: -79 Wins: Zero*
Even though he is 17th in the standings with no wins on the year, I like Allmendinger’s chances more than any other winless driver on this list. He is a serious threat to win at Watkins Glen, and Michigan (where the Fords are always strong) will likely be decided with strategy involved one way or another. A win at the Glen along with a gutsy pit call somewhere else could see Allmendinger in the Chase for the first time ever.
*Brad Keselowski – Points Behind 10th: -83 Wins: Zero*
Before we automatically write BK into the Chase after scoring win number two, there is one key thing to remember. He is still barely eligible, just 19 markers ahead of 21st place. By the way, that guy in 21st is Juan Montoya, and we all know how good he is at Watkins Glen. For Keselowski, there is still plenty of time to lose his wildcard spot and fall out of the top 20. If he does, it opens the door back up for everyone else.
*David Ragan – Points Behind 10th: -85 Wins: Zero*
Ragan had been running well enough this summer that, for a minute, it looked liked he could have made his way into the Chase on points alone. After Loudon, he had moved all the way up to 13th and looked to continue his hot streak by winning the pole at Indy. A promising run there was derailed by the wrong pit strategy and then an early race wreck at Pocono left him with a 34th place result. More importantly, he has dropped to 19th overall and is now outside the Chase thanks to Keselowski and Menard. Ragan’s best hope of making it is if the aforementioned suffer some bad luck before Chicago.
*Joey Logano – Points Behind 10th: -93 Wins: Zero*
With his atrocious start to the 2011 campaign, it’s shocking that Logano is even a long shot for the Chase. He could very well be a serious contender had it rained a little harder and longer at Pocono; not only would he have picked up the win, but Keselowski would still be stuck on one victory. What hurts most is that since the race did resume, he lost 28 points after falling to back to 26th. Had it not, he would be just a few points behind Menard, who still has a decent shot for a wildcard. For Logano, he is just going to have to finish the year as strong as possible to silence his critics about whether or not he belongs in the Cup series.
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