With just six races left before the Sprint Cup Chase begins, the list of contenders seem to be shuffling weekly.
The addition of two wild-cards has added a new element and allowed for many more drivers to have a shot at chasing the championship. While most experts predicted added drama, we're only now beginning to see how crazy the final weeks of the Race to the Chase are going to get.
And to that, I say: boys, have at it!
This past weekend's Brickyard 400 was a shining example of the effect the wild-card has on the Chase.
Having won the Coke Zero 400 on July 2, David Ragan held the first wild-card spot, as the highest standing driver outside the top-10 to have won a race. On Sunday, Paul Menard took the checkered flag and vaulted over Ragan in the standings, who came home 23rd, despite starting on the pole. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin, who picked up a win in Michigan, finished 27th and slipped out of the top-10. The result leaves Hamlin as the first wild-card (in 11th), Menard as the second (in 14th) and Ragan as the first man out (in 16th).
In just 160 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ragan went from a pole-sitting wild-card favorite to an also-in-contention outsider. It was a striking example of just how quickly the weather can change in the Sprint Cup's new Race to the Chase forecast and is a precursor for the storm that should ensue in the final six weeks of the regular season.
As of now, the top-seven are more or less all locks. In descending order, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are all within 18 points of one another and have all won races. Jeff Gordon sits 52 back of Edwards in seventh, but his two wins make him a sure thing. Ryan Newman rounds out the probables in eighth, as his win here at New Hampshire on July 17 gives him a pretty strong safety net.
After those eight, it turns into a question-filled game of Trivial Pursuit.
Former champion Tony Stewart and fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. hold down the last of the 10 guaranteed spots, but "guarantee" is nothing more than a figure of speech. Stewart sat in 11th before the Brickyard 400 and has won five of the last nine races at Watkins Glen, where the series races on Aug. 14. Earnhardt Junior, on the other hand, sat as high as third just five races ago and, with five straight finishes of 15th or worse, his promising season is on the verge of crumbling.
As mentioned, Hamlin and Menard hold the wild-cards, but Clint Bowyer (12th) and Greg Biffle (13th) lead Menard in points and Kasey Kahne (15th) sits just two points behind him, a win for any of those three could vault into a wild-card.
Then, there's Ragan in 16th and Brad Keselowski in 21st. Both have a win and could put a stronghold on a wild-card spot with another Victory Lane visit. (In Keselowski's case, he'll need to get inside the top-20 to qualify, but a win would surely do that.)
Menard's win puts a damper on the chances of rising start A.J. Allmendinger (17th) and Joey Logano (19th) or sputtering former chasers Mark Martin (18th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (20th). Yet, with half a dozen races left, there's no reason why one of them couldn't pick up a win, close strong and get a few breaks higher up in the standings to sneak the final wild-card.
Traditionalists might criticize the Chase and/or the wild-card, but it's made for a much more exciting product on the track.
As we look toward the Chase, the top-six drivers are unusually even with one another. Thanks to his two wins, I'll write Jeff Gordon onto the list of the lucky seven that local fans will be focusing on during the Chase's second race on Sept. 25 here at NHMS.
After them, there are legitimately 14 drivers with a shot at the Chase with only six races left to sort out five spots, which will leave nine of them refueling for next year. Unlike in year's past, we won't just cross off another driver or two that can no longer make up the ground in the standings. No longer can contenders aim for top-fives or top-10s to earn the last spot, while the rest of the field falls off the pace.
This year, drivers will need to take checkered flags, if they plan on vying for the coveted Sprint Cup trophy during the SYLVANIA 300 at "The Magic Mile." The closer we get to the beginning of the Chase, the more NASCAR will mimic other sports in a true win-or-go-home mentality.
So, again, I tell you boys: have at it!