Wide-open race for Chase wild card spots

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) - It's no longer the dog days of summer for NASCAR, thanks to its new wild card format for the championship Chase. With five races remaining before the playoffs begin, several of the spots in the 12-driver field are far from being decided.

NASCAR revised its Chase format during the off-season, adding two wild card spots to the field. After the September 10 race at Richmond, the top-10 drivers in points will qualify for the Chase. Positions 11 and 12, the wild cards, will go those drivers ranked between 11th and 20th that have the most wins.

How well the system is working at this point of the season is pretty obvious. It's been a winner for NASCAR. Let's just say that while the mercury has soared throughout most of the country the past several weeks, NASCAR has endured its own heat wave with the wild card race.

Right now, Brad Keselowski holds the first wild card position and Denny Hamlin occupies the second spot.

Neither pain from a broken left ankle nor fatigue from a sore back could stop Keselowski from picking up his second win of the season last Sunday at Pocono. His victory there came days after he suffered injuries from a crash while testing at Road Atlanta.

Even though he has multiple wins this season, Keselowski is not a shoo-in for the Chase just yet.

"I think winning two races is probably really good for our Chase hopes, and it gives us pretty high odds if we were playing poker, but nothing is 100 percent until it's 100 percent," he said.

Keselowski was 21st in points prior to Pocono. He's now 18th (just 10 points ahead of 20th-place Joey Logano).

"Maybe if we keep running like this and if we can get a third win, we'll be damn near immune, unless we fall out of the top-20," Keselowski added.
Even though he has multiple
wins this season, Brad Keselowski is not a shoo-in for the Chase just yet.

Hamlin, who scored a season-high eight wins and finished second in points, is in jeopardy of not making the Chase for a sixth consecutive year. Currently 11th in points, Hamlin's win in June at Michigan has him in the game for now.

"We are in a danger zone," he said. "We don't want to be where we're at, but we know we're very capable of winning the next race and the one after that. We're not terribly alarmed, but obviously with the reliability issues, you never know what can happen. We've got a little assurance knowing that the Michigan victory hopefully will keep us in."

Hamlin is 23 points behind 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is trying to avoid a no-show in the Chase for the third time in a row. Earnhardt Jr. maintained his top-10 spot after finishing ninth this past weekend.

"I'm comfortable though, trust me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'd rather be first or second or third, whatever, but I'm good with how things are working out."

Despite one win each, Paul Menard and David Ragan are presently the odd-men out in the Chase battle.

Menard claimed his first victory in the Sprint Cup Series last week at Indianapolis. He moved up to 14th in points and held the final wild card position. But Keselowski's Pocono win has bumped Menard out of the spot for the time being.

"The race for the final Chase spots is shaping up to be really competitive, and we're fighting hard to put ourselves in position to take one of those spots," Menard said.

Menard remained 14th in the rankings after his tenth-place finish at Pocono.

Ragan emerged as a Chase contender when he won last month at Daytona, but his hopes of making his first appearance in the playoffs have taken a hit the previous two races. He finished 23rd at Indy and then 34th at Pocono.

"Trying to make this Chase, we need as many points as we can," he said. "I've said all along we need to be in that top-12 or 13, or get a second win. There's still a lot of racing left."

Let's not count Juan Pablo Montoya out of the Chase scenario quite yet. The series heads to Watkins Glen, NY this weekend, and Montoya, presently 21st in points, is the defending race winner.

The top-seven drivers -- Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon -- appear to be in good shape to qualify for the Chase. Kyle Busch and Harvick have a series-high three wins each so far this season, while Kenseth and Gordon have two victories apiece.

Who will make up the remainder of the field is anyone's guess for the next month.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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