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Wild Card Watch: Tight turns ahead

NASCAR.com

Related: Sprint Cup Series standings

Just when you thought the race for the Wild Card spots in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup couldn't get any tighter, it got tighter. Only 20 points separate Martin Truex Jr. in the final Wild Card spot in 12th place with 16th-place Ryan Newman, fresh off his brick-kissing victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To further add to the excitement is the fact that only 12 points separate eighth-place Greg Biffle with defending champion Brad Keselowski, who, in 13th place, is the first driver "on the outside looking in" for the Chase.

The next six races are sure to produce more swings in the standings -- and in emotions -- and will only add to the drama race fans witness as the Chase nears.

The drivers from Biffle on down to Newman in the standings include Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart (WC), Truex Jr. (WC), Keselowski (first out), Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray. Gordon, Keselowski, Busch and McMurray are the ones in the group who do not have a victory this season, making this week's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway especially important for them.

But another reason this is shaping up to be an interesting race is because of the amount of success these drivers have had at the Tricky Triangle. In addition to points leader Jimmie Johnson, who is going for his second season sweep at Pocono, Stewart, Keselowski, Newman, Gordon, Busch, Kahne and Biffle have all made it to Victory Lane at the track. And Gordon has won twice in the past five races there.

This puts added pressure on drivers such as Truex Jr. and McMurray, who haven't been quite as successful at the track. According to NASCAR Statistical Service's Loop Data, Truex Jr. and McMurray rank 19th and 23th, respectively, in driver rating (based on the last eight year's worth of data).

The leader in driver rating at Pocono in this span is Denny Hamlin at 113.8, followed by Johnson (110.0), Kurt Busch (103.8), Gordon (100.0) and Stewart (98.8). With the exception of Hamlin, those are certainly some of the names we'll be watching this weekend.

So even though Johnson dominated the first race at Pocono by leading 128 laps and posting a 148.1 driver rating in what seemed like a cakewalk, it's the race within the race (for the Wild Card spot) that should remain compelling no matter what.

Ready to pounce: Stewart and Newman are in this category as the current teammates build momentum and Newman works to increase his free-agent value for the offseason. In 29 Cup races at Pocono, Stewart has two wins and 21 top-10s, and he finished fourth there earlier this season. Stewart has been boom-or-bust of late, but he's showing positive signs with five top-five finishes in his past eight events. Meanwhile, Newman has 11 top-10s and one win in 23 Cup events at Pocono. He finished fifth there earlier this season.

In danger of falling out: Jeff Burton boldly proclaimed he was back in business for a long-shot Chase run after a third-place finish at Loudon, N.H., but a mechanical failure caused his car to sadly slow to a crawl at Indy. He finished last in the 43-car field and dropped three spots in the standings to 20th.

Burton is holding on to that spot precariously with 499 points, just four points ahead of rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. In 39 races at Pocono, Burton has 17 top-10s and no wins. He finished in 11th place there earlier this season. He needs a top-10 finish and some help to get back to where he wants to be in the standings.

In other words, don't break out the Richard Childress Vineyards Victory Cuvee (sparkling wine) just yet.

 

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