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Wild card changing way races are run – and won

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

Throw Brad Keselowski into the Chase mix after he grabbed the win in the STP 400. But is that a good thing?

Sunday saw yet another Hail Mary thrown, this time to completion when Keselowski stretched his final tank of fuel long enough to win a race in which he clearly didn't have the dominant car, something that's become a full-blown trend.

Just three times in 13 tries this season has the eventual winner led the most laps in that race. In his three victories, Kevin Harvick led a total of nine laps.

That's the same number Keselowski led Sunday when he used a fuel-mileage strategy to find his way to the front. For the first 260 laps of the 267-lap race, Keselowski was no better than a top-10 car. But in the closing laps, as driver after driver stopped for fuel, Keselowski kept moving up the leaderboard. With nine laps to go, he inherited the lead from teammate Kurt Busch, who had to pit for fuel. Keselowski, in full conservation mode, had plenty in the tank to hold off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. and pick up the victory.

Despite being 21st in the standings, Keselowski is now smack dab in the middle of the Chase conversation, sitting prettier than the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya (14th), Mark Martin (15th) and Kasey Kahne (18th).

As a refresher, NASCAR will award two wild-card berths into the Chase, given to the two drivers with the most wins who are ranked between 11th and 20th in the standings. Following the win, Keselowski sits just seven points out of 20th.

Considering how well he's running as of late, cracking the top 20 shouldn't be a problem. If he does, he would move into that preliminary wild-card spot, along with Jeff Gordon, as they are the only two drivers in that 11-20 range with a victory.

"If we deserve to be in it, we'll get in it. If we don't, we won't," Keselowski said after his second career Cup victory. "But right now we're on a good path to deserve to be in it. That's really what matters the most to me.

"I'm a big fan for the rule NASCAR implemented putting winners in the last two spots. I think that serves the sport very well. And hopefully we'll be able to capitalize on it. But there's no guarantees of that. I feel pretty confident that it's going to take really two wins to guarantee your way into it."

As the 26-race regular season winds down, the lure of the wild card is certain to draw some added attention. But there's also a pitfall. Keselowski's win, while a legitimate victory, is still a fuel-mileage win. Is this how the sport's playoff field should be determined? And what if rain cuts the race at Pocono short next week with, let's say, David Ragan in the lead. Is this how the winless Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle, who currently hold the 11th and 12th spots in the standings, respectively, should be excluded from the championship run?

There is plenty of racing left for the field to shake itself out. And as Keselowski said, two wins is likely the magic number to get into the 12-driver playoff.

But just as there were complaints last season when Jamie McMurray didn't make the Chase despite winning twice during the regular season, and Kyle Busch missing out in 2009 with four wins, there will be conversations this year questioning the validity of someone making the Chase because of fuel mileage or rain or whatever the case may be.

NASCAR is right to incentivize wins more. Still, the sport has always been about consistency, not how things break for someone on a certain day. This is why I'm still firmly in the camp that the incentive should be based on points.

By rewarding wins with enough of a bonus, those who win and are consistent will matriculate up the standings, thus there would be no need for a wild card.

As it's set up now, the next 12 races are going to be chock full of Hail Marys, with the Cup Series turning into a game of Madden as drivers and crew chiefs go for it on 4th-and-20 from their own 10-yard line. If they don't get the first down, well, no big deal, because they can just hit reset and try again next week.

Welcome to the Sprint Cup Series in 2011.

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