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NASCAR Chase for the Cup playoff could include surprising names

NASCAR has tweaked its Chase for the Cup playoff rules to put a greater emphasis on wins rather than let drivers play it safe by accumulating points. The change could lead to some surprising wild-car drivers.

August 01, 2011|By Jim Peltz

Reporting from Indianapolis — True to the name, the two wild-card drivers who reach NASCAR's title playoff this year could be surprising.

The latest candidate: Paul Menard, who scored the first Sprint Cup Series win of his career Sunday in the Brickyard 400 and suddenly finds himself in playoff contention.

NASCAR tweaked its Chase for the Cup playoff this year to include the top 10 drivers in points after the first 26 races, along with two wild-card drivers who were 11th to 20th in points and had the most wins.

The aim was to have drivers and their teams put a greater emphasis on winning races to qualify for the 10-race Chase, which starts Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway, rather than playing it safe to accumulate points.

After Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there are now six races left before the Chase. And the need to win, and not just finish well, is paramount for several drivers hoping to reach the playoff.

As it now stands, Denny Hamlin (11th in points) and Menard (14th) would qualify as the two wild-card entries because they each have one victory this season, while Clint Bowyer (12th) and Greg Biffle (13th) are winless.

Indeed, Menard crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe said the gamble on fuel mileage that helped their team win Sunday came after they decided that "if we're going to make the Chase, we're going to have to get risky" and go for a win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished a disappointing 16th Sunday after leading for several laps, is clinging to the 10th spot in the point standings that would gain him automatic entry into the Chase.

But Earnhardt doesn't have a win — in fact, he hasn't won in his last 113 starts — so if he falls out of the top 10 in the coming weeks, he'll need to break that winless streak to have any chance of making the Chase.

"We'll try not to worry about it," Earnhardt said. "We'll go to [the next race at] Pocono and try not to let that overwhelm us or consume us."

The same situation applies to two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. He finished sixth in Sunday's race but is ninth in the season standings, only three points above Earnhardt, and Stewart is winless so far this year.

If Stewart runs into trouble in the next couple of races and drops out of the top 10 in points, his Chase hopes could be jeopardized.

David Ragan is another surprise candidate for the Chase. He, too, recently won his first Cup series race — the summer race at Daytona — and sits 16th in points. If Ragan could move up a few spots in the standings or win another race in the next six weeks, he could make the playoff.

Even Brad Keselowski, who's 21st in points, has a shot at the Chase because the Penske Racing driver has one win this year. If he can climb into the top 20 in points and earn a second victory, a playoff berth might be his.

"We want wins," said Keselowski, who finished ninth Sunday. "But we also need to get inside that top 20 to have a shot at the wild card."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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