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Sprint Cup - Playoff Push Gets Wild

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Daytona, August 3, 2011: Paul Menard rumbled across the yard of bricks at full speed for the final time, signaling the crunching of a few couple key numbers: 14 different winners in 20 races, most since 2003; four different first-time winners, most since 2007; and the big one – five winners residing outside the top 10 in points.

“Wild Card Fever” has overtaken the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage, adding new faces to the championship discussion. Only six races remain before NASCAR’s “playoffs” – the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – meaning fewer chances for Wild Card wins, and potential Chase bonus points.

After race No. 26 at Richmond, the top-10 drivers will earn berths into the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field. Spots 11 and 12 will go to those drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. Ties will go to the drivers with the best points position.

Intrigue and intensity also ratchets up this time of year for those seemingly assured a Chase berth (i.e.: Carl Edwards, who currently enjoys a 95-point cushion over the Chase cutoff). After Richmond, all Chase drivers will have their points total reset to 2,000, but only the top 10 will earn three bonus points for each victory over the first 26 races. Currently, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch sit atop the wins list with three victories apiece – and a possible nine bonus points if they make the Chase.

Currently, Denny Hamlin in 11th and Menard in 14th hold the two Wild Card spots. Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway is especially prominent in the Wild Card discussions – three of the last four races there have been won by drivers currently outside the top 10.

An in-depth “Wild Card Watch” follows…

Denny Hamlin, 11th: Hamlin’s Michigan win gives him the top Wild Card spot – for now. A 27th-place finish at Indy catapulted Hamlin out of the top 10. History and statistics suggest his outside-looking-in status is temporary. Hamlin owns four Pocono victories, one shy of tying Jeff Gordon and Bill Elliott for most all-time at the Tricky Triangle. He ranks first in pre-race Driver Rating at Pocono, with a 118.6.

Paul Menard, 14th: It took Menard 167 races to nab his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, which is tied for the 10th-longest wait to start a career. He’ll need continued momentum, and some improvement at the upcoming tracks. Of the top 20 drivers, Menard has the lowest Driver Rating at the upcoming six tracks (59.1). He has three top fives, four top 10s and an average finish of 23.7 at the upcoming six tracks (Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta, Richmond). Though he has yet to score a top 10 at Pocono, his last two finishes were both in the top 15 – a 13th last August, and a 14th in June.

David Ragan, 16th: Ragan became the third first-time winner of 2011 with his win at Daytona, but dropped to 16th after a 23rd at Indianapolis. A key component to the Ragan storyline: He’s only seven points behind Menard. A race within a race, these two just might flip-flop Wild Card positions on a weekly basis.

Brad Keselowski in 21st and Regan Smith in 26th: Keselowski consistently flirts with a vital top-20 points position. A solid finish at Indy closed the gap to 16 points. Keselowski’s best finish at Pocono was 20th in this race last season. At Darlington, Smith became the second first-time winner. He finished 15th at Pocono in June, and needs more of the same for the long climb into the top 20 – he currently is 76 points out. Smith threw out the first pitch at the Colorado Rockies-Philadelphia Phillies game on Wednesday.

Greg Biffle, 13th: One of six drivers who won in 2010 but remain winless this season, Biffle is the defending champion of this race. Two of the next three races – at Pocono and Michigan – look promising for the Roush Fenway veteran.