*Does Paul Menard have any chance of making the Chase?*
While it’s not exactly the ideal scenario for Paul Menard, this season’s Chase-hopeful Cinderella story has at least a marginal shot at earning a wildcard position with two races remaining before the cutoff. With just a quick glance at the Sprint Cup standings to date, it may appear Menard’s chances are dimming, but there is one scenario that could easily play out and allow Menard to sneak into the Chase next weekend in Richmond.
With one win, Menard holds a critical advantage over a large number of drivers ahead of him, including some of those on the inside of the Chase bubble. Among those is Tony Stewart, who is now just 21 points ahead of a streaking Brad Keselowski. If Keselowski were to jump Stewart and move into the top 10 – a scenario that’s certainly possible – Denny Hamlin would then assume the first wildcard spot, with Menard stealing the second. Now, there are other variables that need to happen, as well. First and most critical, Menard has to stay inside the top 20 in points. Secondly, and most importantly, he needs to stay ahead of David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose who are 21st and 22nd in points and three and four points behind Menard, respectively. Both also have one win this season. And third, Stewart would have to not win either this weekend at Atlanta or next weekend at Richmond.
The new wildcard system has a chance to make next weekend’s race at Richmond an instant classic or a dud. With more and more Chase spots being clinched by the week, the Keselowski/Stewart swap for the tenth position would certainly create some added intrigue next weekend.
*Could Brad Keselowski’s wins be ‘point’less?*
If you wonder why Keselowski may need to push the envelope a bit more this weekend and continue his streak of top 3 finishes, remember that he needs to finish in the top 10 in points to get credited bonus points for his three wins this season. It’s not the end of the world for the No. 2 team if he doesn’t race his way into the top 10 — just making the Chase is a win amongst itself — but with three additional points being awarded for each win, Keselowski has a chance to open the ten race playoff in a tie for second in points, just three points behind Kyle Busch, and in the midst of the best streak of his career. It’s added pressure for a team that could have never imagined it would be in this position at the mid-point of this season, but it’s a great tune-up for the pressures of the Chase. While I won’t go as far to consider Keselowski as a favorite for the championship despite his streak at this point, if he could find a way into the top 10, I may have to re-think my position.
*What does Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s contract extension mean?*
Early Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports announced a contract extension for NASCAR’s most popular driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s a move that was far from a surprise, but is still interesting considering Earnhardt’s age and lack of on-track success since joining the organization. What it means for the short term – this season – is nothing. This wasn’t a circumstance where a driver is letting contract negotiations affect his performance; both Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick knew this was going to happen…it was only a matter of time. Now signed through 2017 and given the fact that Earnhardt turns 37 next month, this may very well be Earnhardt’s last contract with the team.
With his Cup ride set in stone for the next half decade, he can slowly develop JR Motorsports and eventually move his team to Cup in a few years, perhaps driving for himself when his Hendrick contract is up. But what this contract extension means most of all is Hendrick’s faith in Earnhardt, that he can eventually get back to winning races and competing for championships. Sure, the marketability of Earnhardt played some sort of factor, I’m sure, but on a team that already has Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and soon to be Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt must be successful on the track. This move makes it apparent that Hendrick believes he can.
*Now that Jimmie Johnson is tied for the points lead, is he the favorite for the championship?*
When was he not? We all knew that Jimmie Johnson would “turn it on” as soon as the Chase neared, and sure enough with two races remaining in the regular season he is on top of the standings. I for one am glad he’s running well. If somebody besides the No. 48 wins the championship this year, I want them to have to beat a strong running No. 48 to do it. Maybe it’s Kyle Busch; maybe it’s Brad Keselowski, or maybe, just maybe, Johnson wins it again. Atlanta will be a telling race for Johnson. With top-10 finishes in six of the last seven races there’s no doubt he’s running well, but when the No. 48 team is on they are very tough to beat at the intermediate tracks, particularly Atlanta. With three wins and an average finish a tick over 10th at Atlanta don’t be surprised to see Johnson send shockwaves through the garage with a win this weekend.
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