COMMENTARY | It's the halfway point of the "regular season" after last Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway, and time to start looking at the Wild Card standings going into the Party in the Poconos 400 on Sunday, June 9. There are two ways to make the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup: 1) be in the top 10 in points, and 2) be in positions 11 through 20 and have the most wins or most points to earn spots 11 or 12. The two drivers currently holding down spots 11 and 12 are Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, respectively, but there are other drivers who could make a move in the next 13 races to become the surprise Wild Cards in the Chase.
Tony Stewart - After a dismal start to the season with only one top 10 finish in the first 11 races, in the last two races Stewart has a seventh-place finish and - most importantly - a win, giving him Wild Card 1. Why is Stewart one of the hottest drivers in the series? Because when the weather heats up, so does "Smoke" - at the next 11 tracks on the schedule (encompassing 13 races), Stewart has 26 total wins; the only track where he doesn't have a win is Kentucky, and the series has only raced there twice.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon doesn't have a win yet this season, but getting one is almost inevitable in the next 13 races - in his 20-plus full-time seasons in the Cup Series, he's amassed 42 wins on the next 11 tracks, including six each at the next track on the schedule, Pocono Raceway, and six at Daytona International Speedway. Gordon sits in 11th in points, giving him Wild Card 2, but he's only 10 points back of Paul Menard in 10th.
Aric Almirola - Almirola sits 12th in points, seven points behind Gordon and 17 behind Menard. It's been a career season for the young driver to this point, as he's already matched the four top 10 finishes he had last year in his first season with Richard Petty Motorsports, which has not had a car make the Chase since Kasey Kahne in 2009. His two worst finishes of the season (Bristol - 37th and Charlotte - 33rd) were the results of crashes - his other 11 finishes have all been in the top 20.
Kurt Busch - 2004 Cup Series champ Busch ranks 17th in points, 34 points behind Menard for 10th. His single-car Furniture Row team has been doing everything possible to prove they're "big time," including winning the pole at Darlington (where he also led 69 laps), winning two of the five segments in the All-Star Race and finishing fifth, and racing to four top 10 finishes.
Ryan Newman - Newman sits 20th in points following a rough day at Dover on Sunday, but is still just 48 points behind Menard for 10th. His best track of the next 11 is New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he has three wins and 15 top 10 finishes in 22 races, and he also has two wins at Michigan. He has a long road ahead of him, but as his boss Stewart proved this Sunday, a win could be his way into the Chase.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin did himself no favors with his 34th-place finish at Dover, as he dropped back to 26th in points as he tries to recover points from the four races he missed with a back injury. He's 74 points behind Newman in 20th, and would need a win to even be a threat for the Chase from that point, but with 12 wins at the upcoming 11 tracks, including four at Pocono, he may still have some good finishes left in him this season.
Sources: "Storylines: Pocono Raceway," NASCAR Media, June 3, 2013
"Statistical Advance: Analyzing the Party in the Poconos 400," NASCAR Media, June 3, 2013
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Skirts & Scuffs and Examiner.com.
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