The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is most definitely putting the "wild" in Wild Card.
During last week's race at Bristol, the Performance Racing Network read through the long list of drivers that were more or less a win away from racing their way into the Chase. Afterward, they mused whether NASCAR could have envisioned there would be so much drama when it created the sytem.
I would say, absolutely, yes!
The kind of scenario that we're in for in the next two weeks is exactly what NASCAR had intended to do create when it instituted the Wild Card format before the 2011 season. The system gives 10 of 12 Chase spots to the top-10 finishers in the standings, and the final two to which ever drivers finishing 11-20 had the most wins.
As is the case with everything in NASCAR, the change created a debate among fans. In many instances, it's admirable what the governing body does despite the criticism it knows it will face.
I understand the purity of winning a Cup title the old-fashioned, pre-Chase way by accruing the most points over the course of a full season. I get where that's the sign of the truly best team throughout the course of the year.
But, if we're going to go with that, let's change the "2007: 16-0 Regular Season" banner that hangs at Gillette Statidum to a "2007: NFL Champions" banner for the New England Patriots. Every sport uses a postseason to crown a champion (except for college football, and that's changing), because like a race, it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
Last year's championship run by Tony Stewart, as he edged Carl Edwards, made for one of the most exciting conclusions to a NASCAR season in a long time. That level of competition was only possible because the Chase existed. In the old format, Stewart would have been some also-ran driver seemingly racking up wins for a little extra purse money, while Edwards would have had the car on auto-pilot, sipping a macchiato like he's Jean Girard, as he coasted to a title.
That would have been far less exciting, and NASCAR fans, always demanding more "excitement," would have asked if there was a way to change the system ... unless they were Edwards fans.
Well, as good as the Chase has been, NASCAR identified that it wasn't perfect. In 2009, Kyle Busch won four races but missed a Chase that took four drivers that failed to win a single one: Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman and Edwards.
When it created the Wild Card, it did so under the excuse that the old format was leaving deserving drivers out of the Chase. But, let's be honest. NASCAR's not stupid. It knew exactly what sort of an exotic zoo it was building when it left the door open for as many as 10 drivers to be eligible to claim the last two spots in the Chase.
The 2011 Wild Card ended up to be much-ado-about-nothing. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin finished 11th and 12th in points to claim the spots, which they would have done in the old system. This year, only a Carl Edwards win in the next two races or two strong finishes by Kyle Busch will create a similar scenario.
Entering the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday evening, Edwards, Busch, Jeff Gordon, Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano are all only about a win away from claiming the second Wild Card spot. Of course, if two of those guys win one of the next two races, the other would still be left out.
One of the big benefits in the Race for the Chase is that it shines the spotlight on some of the drivers that might not be garnering the most attention. Marcos Ambrose is a great example. Since his win at Watkins Glen in early August, he's cranked out two more top-five finishes. That leads to optimism that if he could win one of the next two races, the Aussie could easily sneak the last spot from many of the bigger name drivers.
Marcos Ambrose, people! Who would have thought he'd be the big story right now!?
While the battle is taking place between 11th and 20th, NASCAR decided that wasn't enough. It created a rule: anyone finishing in the top-10 gets three bonus points for their regular season wins, but the two Wild Cards do not.
This year that becomes very significant for the reigning champion. Stewart has struggled recently and sits in 10th, just 16 points in front of Kasey Kahne. Stewart has three wins. Kahne has two. Only one of them is going to finish in the top-10 and have the chance to translate those wins into bonus points.
Based on last year's finish, which came down to a tiebreaker, Stewart can attest to just how important every single point is in the Chase. He'll certainly be disappointed if his three wins get scrapped because he couldn't keep his car in the top-10.
I have trouble believing that the last two weeks of the "regular" season will end as cleanly as it did last year with 11 and 12 claiming the two Wild Card spots. Drivers like Busch and Gordon are just too good at winning to cruise around looking for a pair of top-10 finishes.
Heck, with Gordon's history at Atlanta and Busch's ridiculous dominance at Richmond, it's highly possible that they could both win in the next two races.
That would be awesome! That kind of excitement is exactly what the Wild Card system was designed to create.
Strap in your seat belt NASCAR fans, and you're in for a wild ride.