After the 2010 NASCAR season, there existed a rift between the fans and the sport. Fans wondered, "how can a driver with mostly consistent finishes make the Chase in the top 12 while a driver with a win or two who drives a bit more inconsistently misses out?"
NASCAR's solution? The "Wild Card" format.
As everybody knows by now, the top 10 drivers in the point standings are locked into the Chase after the first 26 races. However, instead of locking in the drivers who rank 11th and 12th in points, NASCAR introduced the concept that "drivers between 11-20th in points with the most wins would make the Chase. If one or both spots are not occupied by drivers with a win, the driver with the highest points total would advance."
This method allows for varying concepts. Drivers could still "race for points," or attempt to swing for the fences and win a race or two while attempting to stay within the top 20.
How did it work out?
Well, for drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, I'm fairly confident that regardless of the Chase scenario, they will be locked in. Drivers such as Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth are usually safe bets to win a few races, therefore missing the Chase under its new format would have been, quite frankly, shocking.
But what about the rest of the drivers?
For Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, consistent races throughout the body of the season paved the way for the Chase. That still leaves three spots...enter Brad Keselowski.
Dubbed after his 2009 victory at Talledega one of NASCAR's next big stars, the first half of his season was not what many had been expecting. The team was struggling, and eventually, crew chief Paul Wolf took over for the Blue Deuce. What followed was one of the better summer performances since the mid 2000's, usually reserved for Tony Stewart. He claims the first wild card spot.
The final two spots have been claimed by Denny Hamlin, a driver who seemingly wasn't himself this season. He won only one race (June Michigan race) and scored only four top-five finishes. Thanks to the wild card, though, he beat out the likes of Clint Bowyer and David Ragan for the second Wild Card spot.
And then there's Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After a strong spring, many figured that THIS was the year that he would break his winless streak, and save for one more gallon of fuel, he would have won the Coca-Cola 600.
But as fate usually has it for Junior, just as soon as the good runs started, the bad runs soon followed. After an uninspiring summer, Junior finds himself in the Chase (barely), but in the Chase nonetheless.
So how will the Chase shake itself out? Here are my predictions (in reverse order):
12. Tony Stewart. With zero wins entering the Chase and no standout performances, this team simply lacks the momentum, regardless how talented Smoke may be.
11. Denny Hamlin. He has a win, but at times has looked like a car destined for "the pack." One of the more disappointing drivers with regards to expectations, he too has little chance.
10. Ryan Newman. If the Chase were determined solely from qualifying records, here's your champ. It's not, so therefore, he's not.
9. Brad Keselowski. This may be low for Brad, but it's his first time in the Chase, and I wonder if they "used up their stuff" before the Chase...
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. I don't think he truly contends, but I actually believe that towards the end, he WILL disrupt the cars near the top.
7. Kurt Busch. He's won races, but has also been plagued by inconsistency. He may win a race, but not much more should be expected.
6. Matt Kenseth. Mr Consistency runs well, but also has the second most DNF's among Chase drivers.
5. Kyle Busch. He will win a race or two, but you're also looking at the man who beats Kenseth in the DNF category, three to two.
4. Jimmie Johnson. After five times, his reign is over! He's been consistent, but with just one win, I wonder if they can truly compete at the end of the race.
3. Carl Edwards. See above, minus the comment about the reign of five times.
In what I believe will be a VERY close race, your runner up is...
2. Kevin Harvick. He's good. Very good...but somebody is just a little better.
YOUR 2011 champ will be...JEFF GORDON! Has been competitive throughout the season, and I feel that this wily veteran will get at least one last hurrah.