Six races remain until the Chase and who will make the cut is wonderfully unpredictable. It is the scenario NASCAR wished for when the Chase format was revised prior to this season to include two wild cards, which will be awarded to the two drivers ranked 11th-20th with the most victories.
The addition of the wild card underscored the importance of winning races and was largely influenced by the failure of Kyle Busch (2009) and Jamie McMurray (2010) to make the Chase.
"This puts emphasis on winning, even if you've had some bad luck," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said in making the announcement in January 2011. "As an example, last year Jamie McMurray raced hard, collected two big wins during the regular season, Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400. He didn't qualify for the Chase. In 2009, Kyle Busch, he had four wins in the regular season. He didn't qualify in the race for the Chase.
But under the 2011 format, both drivers would make the Chase and have a chance to compete for the championship. And going for the win, especially as we go through Bristol, Atlanta, on to Richmond, is going to create even more excitement and drama."
NASCAR's timing couldn't have been better. Fourteen drivers -- up from 13 in all of 2010 and 12 in all of 2009 -- have won races this year, four of them first-time winners. Several race winners from previous seasons (chief among them Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer) are in the top-20 and winless. First-time winners Paul Menard (14th) and David Ragan (16th) are in serious contention for the Chase. Brad Keselowski has a win and sits 21st.
There are really two groups in contention for the final four spots in the Chase. Stewart (ninth) and Earnhardt (10th) can make it without a win if they can keep Denny Hamlin (11th) and Bowyer (12th) out of the top 10 in points. Hamlin currently occupies one of the wild-card spots but Menard and Ragan are in hot pursuit, sitting only 34 and 41 points behind Hamlin respectively. After a second-place finish last year, Hamlin is expected to make the Chase and challenge for the championship. There's cubic tons of pressure on Hamlin. Menard and Ragan are under pressure too, but not like Hamlin.
That said, every driver in the top 20 is technically only a win away from becoming a Chase contender. Mark Martin (18th), Joey Logano (19th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (20th) have further to go in the points, but they're not out of it. Keselowski needs to quickly climb into the top 20 to have a chance, but he's probably the longest shot as he's fourth in line for the two wild cards.
It's possible another first-time winner could emerge and -- presto -- jump into the race for the Chase. A.J. Allmendinger is 17th in points. The ex-Champ Car star with the road racing background has developed into a solid oval racer, as evident by his fifth at Charlotte and seventh at Richmond, but his best chance is probably Watkins Glen. He was fourth there a year ago. Allmendinger wouldn't be a surprise in this season of surprise race winners.
Juan Pablo Montoya's road racing resume is superior to Allmendinger's and he won at Watkins Glen a year ago. If he can repeat and put together five other decent finishes, Montoya might become a wild card. He's 47 points behind Bowyer.
Menard's victory at the Brickyard made him a Chase contender. It's a powerful statement on the impact of the wild card format. Slugger Labbe, Menard's crew chief, knows it's going to be rough waters between Pocono and the Chase.
"For us, I think we still got to be pushing," Labbe said. "We're 14th in points with a win. That doesn't guarantee you a thing. There's a lot of things that could happen. Ryan Newman is currently in the top 10 and could fall out, take a spot away from us. We have to keep pushing, be aggressive, make it that way, not rely on this victory."
Ragan was in the Chase before the Brickyard and now he's just outside it. He understands going for a wild card is a fragile and fluid situation.
"I think Tony [Stewart], Montoya, Biffle -- some of the guys right around us -- are gonna get a win, so it's gonna be a dogfight for points," he said. "I think you can make it in with one win, but you've got to be 11th or 12th in points."
The concluding regular season race at Richmond has had its dramatic moments in the past. When only 10 drivers qualified for the Chase, Jeremy Mayfield went from 14th to ninth with a victory in 2004, and Tony Stewart fell out when he went from eighth to 11th by finishing 18th in 2006.
But last year it was a bore. Ten drivers were secure going into Richmond and Biffle needed only to finish 42nd or better (he was 32nd) and Bowyer 28th or better (he was sixth) to secure their spots.
This much is certain: Nobody is backing into the Chase this season and nobody will be cruising at Richmond. The racing will be beyond hard; it will be ruthless and unforgiving. The race for the Chase has never seen anything like it. Those wild-card spots have given more drivers hope and motivation than in past seasons. It's a game changer for the ages.
NASCAR's original goal in creating the Chase for the 2004 season was to boost the television ratings, which suffer going against the NFL and college football. The ratings decline typically begins in mid-August. The wild-card race should spark new interest leading into the Chase and, maybe, Sprint Cup can hang onto some of that interest in the 10 races that follow.