1. Denny Hamlin was the runner-up last week at Richmond, and he's the defending champion of this weekend's event at Darlington. Is it too soon to say he's thrusting himself back into the championship picture?

Dave Rodman: It's too soon only because the points don't indicate it on paper. But I think I'm liking this point system more and more every week we get into it. Denny finished second, didn't move a spot in the points -- but he's within reach of passing about five guys this week if he does it again. He never really left is the bottom line.

David Caraviello: Yes, it's too soon. As good as Hamlin was at Richmond on Saturday, and that runner-up finish was easily his best result in what's been a tough year, he didn't budge in points. He went to Virginia 17th, came out 17th. That's showing you how difficult it is to pass people under this points format. The big thing everyone worried about was getting buried and not being able to climb out of the hole. Hamlin's showing just how arduous that is.

Joe Menzer: Well, the characteristics of the weekend he had overall at Richmond certainly would begin to indicate so. He wins his charity event -- no big deal, you would think, but he said it was because it finally got him in Victory Lane again -- then backed that up with the Nationwide win, and then nearly pulled off the Cup win. But I think perhaps he dug too big a hole at the start of this season and will need to win races to get into the Chase as a wild card.

Dave Rodman: That team is too good. I think they have the internal strength to overcome any cases of the shakes, or whatever you would call it if there's a moment of hesitation on anyone's part. But as David said, you have to be consistent to make moves in this system. Richmond showed they're not too far out -- but they either have to stay consistent or win a number of races.

Joe Menzer: And see, there's the thing. If Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford get their stuff together, they could easily win two or more races between now and the return trip to Richmond Sept. 10. And that will be enough to get them into the Chase as one of the wild cards no matter where they are in the points.

David Caraviello: Now, none of that is to say Denny doesn't have it in him to win multiple races, move up in the standings, and sneak in the back door of the Chase via wild card if need be. Saturday showed just how stout that No. 11 car can be, and the whole weekend reminded us that Hamlin makes his living winning races. I'm sure the trip to Richmond did wonders for his confidence. But he still has to climb the ladder in points, and that's not going to be easy given where he is and who's in front of him.

Dave Rodman: He's in the Nationwide race at Darlington -- that would be a great way to keep that ball rolling, back up his 2010 Cup score and, assuming not everyone else will be as consistent, do some leapfrogging in the points.

David Caraviello: Now, I'm still not buying into Dave's theory from a few Track Smacks ago that he's going to win four times, or something like that. That may be asking a little too much. But I think we know they can win now, unless Richmond was some strange bit of home-cooking voodoo. Which I don't think it was. I think all this guy needed was a solid run to get his confidence back. And now that he's had a few weeks without mechanical issues, maybe he feels a little more secure on that end, too.

Joe Menzer: I like how Caraviello came around to my way of thinking so quickly today. Denny's team has been haunted by demons from last year at the beginning of this one, I do believe, but they have shown signs of shaking them off and they have that wild-card angle to play in the back of their pockets.

David Caraviello: Wait, now, I didn't exactly "come around to your way of thinking." Shoot, I don't even read your responses anymore, they've become so predictable. You probably have something about Skyline Chili in there for all I know.

Joe Menzer: You know I love my Skyline! Gimme a five-way and a cheese coney and pass the hot sauce!

Dave Rodman: Hey Caraviello -- where did I say he would win four races? Maybe before the season I might have, which wouldn't have been an unreasonable expectation. When I say "multiple" now it's because I am not sure -- reinforced by Kyle Busch after Richmond -- that two wins will earn a wild card berth. Too early to determine that, though you'd certainly like to think so.

David Caraviello: What's going to make Denny's life tougher is all the top-level guys around him, drivers like Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle and Mark Martin. They're all trying to do the same thing he is, and that's going to make Hamlin's quest that much more difficult. Of course, he wins a few races, that equation changes. But we're not there yet. And technically, four is "multiple," right?

Joe Menzer: Yes, but there is a big difference at Skyline between a two-way and four-way order. And Roadman, I will say I disagree with you on one thing -- two wins will be plenty to qualify as a wild card, I do believe. And that is well within Denny's reach. I think we all can agree on that.

Dave Rodman: Too early to tell on the wins. But it's obvious already this point system is kinda cool. To finish second and not move in the standings is unique. And to have three owners tied for the cutoff spot in their standings is just fascinating -- for us voyeurs. Kinda aggravating for them...

David Caraviello: Whoa, pal. This is a family website. You keep that crazy stuff to yourself. Between voyeurs and four-ways, we're gonna end up in trouble with the FCC.

Only time will tell if Gordon's win in Phoenix can get him a wild-card spot in the Chase.

2. Jeff Gordon's crash at Richmond knocked him to 16th place in points. Four-Time is in good shape for a wild card, but is this honestly a team that can contend for a title right now?

Dave Rodman: Don't have the stats in front of me, but it seems to me they're hardly much worse off than Five-Time is, right now -- though a little more troubled by crazy stuff, which Richmond certainly was. They'd hardly had time to figure out how good they were gonna be and boom -- they were out.

Joe Menzer: You want to say yes. They've run up front an awful lot this year. They've already won one race. But wow. Their finishes have been wildly inconsistent -- and we all know you can't have that in the Chase. So right now, no, they don't look like a true championship contender. But I still think they've got plenty of time to win another race, get their act together, and be one by the time the Chase commences.

David Caraviello: I will admit, I'm a little concerned about the 24 team these days. That victory at Phoenix is starting to stand out for the wrong reasons, and that's because many of the results around it leave something to be desired. Gordon was solid Saturday night at Richmond, but he didn't get the finish to back it up, and as a result slid three places in the standings. They're trending in the wrong direction right now.

Dave Rodman: Just like with Denny and Mike Ford, Jeff and Alan Gustafson need to establish some consistent finishes to regain some solidity in the points. They can win almost at any time, no matter how they ran last weekend, in my opinion. Probably a case where a consistent driver/crew chief relationship is more able to make silk purses out of sow's ears. Just like Saturday night -- that 48 was junk most of the night, but in the end they salvaged something.

David Caraviello: Dave, Five-Time is second in points, with six consecutive finishes of 11th or better. Four-Time is 16th, and has five double-digit finishes in his past seven starts. That's night and day in terms of results. Now, granted, they both have a race victory, so in terms of the wild card -- which I'm already sick of hearing about -- they are both in the same shape. But one team is running pretty well and getting finishes right now, and one team is not.

Joe Menzer: Yes, right now the differences between Five-Time and Four-Time are like the differences between my Smack responses and yours, Dave. And you lost me with the silk purses and sow's ears!

David Caraviello: Wait -- cow ears aren't made of silk, are they? Unless we're talking about some really special cows. Anyway, Jimmie and Chad Knaus have a history of making the car better as the event goes along. I can't count how many times you think the 48 is done for, and somehow they wind up inside the top 10. I like all the pieces on that 24 team, I think Gordon and Gustafson are a great match, but for whatever reason they're just not getting the finishes right now, and they're starting to sink in the points.

Joe Menzer: The point is that there is a huge difference between the current on-track performances of Five-Time and Four-Time. Jimmie's much more consistent and the 48 team hasn't even kicked it into Chase mode yet. The 24 team is struggling to find its way and might not even make it if they don't win another race and get in as a wild card.

Dave Rodman: I wouldn't want to count on one win getting me in, but it might. But bottom line, no matter if they win again or not, they need to get consistent -- and consistently running near the front. That's what this new point system is really pointing out.

Joe Menzer: The 48 team has always won more than their fair share of races. But isn't what has always made the 48 team so great the fact that on most days, even if they're a little off, Jimmie can take what might be a 15th-place car for someone else and cajole a top-five finish out of it. That's the kind of thing that simply is not happening for the 24 team these days. And geez, Rodman, I never said one win would get Gordon into the Chase. I'm saying he's got one win in his pocket already and would have to win one more. I do think a total of two will get you in as a wild card, as I stated previously while also discussing the merits of Skyline Chili.

David Caraviello: This all goes back to the column I wrote last week about the wild card potentially hurting the Chase. I know a lot of people are ga-ga over it -- you're guilty, Menzer -- but unless things reverse themselves, right now it's threatening to let in a team that just doesn't seem like it's in shape to contend for a championship. Not compared to the 48, 18, or 99, for instance.

Dave Rodman: But how is that different than the Chase has ever been? You have two or three or four legitimate championship contenders and the rest of the Chase group is field fillers. Wild card doesn't, nor should it change that. It just proves you can win -- but winning championships, just like it's always been, is a season-long accomplishment.

David Caraviello: As of right now, one win would get Gordon in. And I think that if you look back to last year, one win would have gotten a driver in. Just checked -- last year one win would have gotten Ryan Newman in, with a tiebreak. So one victory may well be enough.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, why are you such a sourpuss over the wild-card format, Caraviello? The fact that we're already having a spirited discussion about who may or may not get in via the two wild-card spots proves it was a worthy idea. I think most people like it. So, yes, I'm guilty as charged.

Dave Rodman: I don't want to be accused of piling on, but the wild card is way better than two weaklings getting in by being 11th and 12th. That calls for a mercy killing via the wild card rule.

David Caraviello: Except, Dave, that the last two years, those "weaklings" have been more championship-worthy than the guys who would have gotten in via the wild card. Just look at Clint Bowyer last season. Minus the penalty, he's in it until almost the end. Under a wild card format, he never gets in. Sure, everybody loves this thing now. All I'm saying is, wait until September. Feelings may change.

3. Thanks to five top-fives in six races, Elliott Sadler has surged to second in Nationwide points. Is the preseason pick for the championship once again the favorite to win it all?

David Caraviello: Is there a favorite right now? The series lead on the Nationwide tour seems to change hands on a weekly basis. I do think what we have is a defined group that the champion will ultimately come from, and Elliott is unquestionably in there. You have to think that from leader Justin Allgaier down to sixth-place Aric Almirola, at least, it's anyone's ballgame. Trevor Bayne would be in that group, but not after unfortunately missing the race last weekend.

Dave Rodman: Hmm -- seems like the same tune we were singing vis-à-vis the Cup Series. He's got to stay consistent. And winning a few races certainly wouldn't hurt. I don't think the Nationwide champ is gonna go winless, but someone's got to win. Someone besides a Cup guy, that is.

Joe Menzer: I've said all along that the cream would rise to the top of those standings before long, and now you're starting to see that with the capable Justin Allgaier first, Sadler second, Jason Leffler third and Aric Almirola sixth. Sure, Sadler's in the mix. Is he the favorite right now? Not sure, but yeah, if I had to pick a guy who I think is capable of winning a couple races and surging in front and staying there, I think I would in fact pick him at this point. Since you two seem to be lacking in the ability to go out on a limb and pick someone, I'll pick my top three favorites: I think at season's end in N-wide, it's Sadler by a nose over Almirola and Allgaier.

Dave Rodman: Sadler would have been my pre-season pick -- as he was for many people. You can look at just about everyone else in that group and there's a flaw -- but I feel like KHI, Sadler and Ernie Cope is the best combination.

David Caraviello: I'm still not sold on this idea that the Nationwide champ is going to end up with a few race wins. Since the beginning of last season, Nationwide regulars have a grand total of one win on oval tracks. I'm not betting that the trend will suddenly change. I wouldn't be surprised if the Nationwide champ ultimately goes winless. It was nice to see all those Nationwide regulars in the mix last week at Richmond, though. Of course, Hamlin won in the end.

Joe Menzer: By the way, Trevor Bayne remains seventh in points despite having to miss last weekend's race at Richmond. But there is a significant cutoff in points after the top six -- it drops from 17 to 45 -- and there is no Chase in Nationwide where you can make up the difference. It could be that the top six are the only ones really left in this hunt at this point.

David Caraviello: Wow. There's an echo in here. Someone must be making really good points. I could swear I just read that ... earlier in this segment!

Joe Menzer: Once again, I have to disagree with Mr. Caraviello, Mr. Caraviello. ... the Nationwide champ will have at least two wins this year. I really believe that. In fact, I think both Sadler and Almirola will win at least two each.

David Caraviello: Joe, I hope you're right, I really am. Now ... can I interest you in some oceanfront property in southern Ohio?

Joe Menzer: Sure, but only if there is a Skyline Chili franchise nearby.

David Caraviello: Listen, is Sadler among the favorites? Of course. He was the consensus pick going in, he drives for a fantastic team, and he has the talent to win races on the Cup level. But you can throw a net over a bunch of these guys right now with this new points format and exclusive championship criteria. Really, there are a bunch of drivers who could win this, which makes it fun. And those Turner Motorsports guys still look like you're going to have to root them out with a stick.

Dave Rodman: Does Skyline have chicken on a stick?

Joe Menzer: Um, no. It's a chili spaghetti deal. Come on, man!

David Caraviello: Now, I will say this -- there may be more depth in the Nationwide tour than we give it credit for. There were a lot of drivers running well at the end of that Richmond race. It's a hoot to see guys like Kenny Wallace up there with an actual chance to win. Goodness knows what may happen if he ever gets back to Victory Lane. His car has been pretty good this year. Could you imagine, a Nationwide regular finally breaks through -- and it's Kenny? The post-race interview may last a week and a half.

Joe Menzer: Well, let me stick it to you this way: My point that Sadler and Almirola will win races this year is based on the fact that they've both proven they can win at this level. They're both in great equipment, and they both can handle racing with and around Cup guys. They'll get to Victory Lane, and more than once. Just like I'll get to Skyline more than once when I cover the first Cup race at Kentucky Speedway in a couple of months.

David Caraviello: So, Joe has progressed from claiming that the eventual Nationwide champ will win races, to now claiming that two different Nationwide drivers will win races. I believe he's ingested too much chili spaghetti, whatever that is.

Dave Rodman: But Allgaier, Leffler -- and of course Herman -- have proven they can win as well. There will be some races where all they have to beat is Carl Edwards -- of the Cup interlopers.

Joe Menzer: That's what I'm talking about! It's gonna happen. You need to believe, Caraviello ... Caraviello ... Caraviello?