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New rule gives drivers easier path to Chase

Raise your hand, please, if you picked Paul Menard to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Chances are Menard wasn't on many lists outside of those made at Richard Childress Racing. But he's a very real threat now, thanks to his win Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR's change to the qualifying rules.

The 12-driver field this year will include "wild cards" awarded to the two drivers outside the top 10 but among the top 20 in points who have the most victories.

Menard is now one of them.

But holding on to one of the wild cards isn't expected to be easy as drivers have just six races remaining to lock up a spot in the Chase. It could set the stage for the most aggressive racing in recent memory, as teams take huge chances to put themselves in position for a win. Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe essentially did that Sunday at Indianapolis, where they used fuel strategy to give Menard his first career Cup victory. Labbe had laid it out in a team meeting before they even arrived at Indy.

"I said, 'Look, guys, if we're going to make the Chase, we're going to have to get risky,' " Labbe recalled.

As the series shifts this weekend to Pocono Raceway, everyone will be watching to see who rolls the dice with a different setup, gutsy strategy or on-track aggression.

Denny Hamlin is ranked 11th in the standings, but because he's got one win this season he's presently holding down the other wild card. Pocono is one of his strongest tracks, and a win Sunday would be a significant cushion toward qualifying for the Chase.

But his Joe Gibbs Racing crew isn't taking any chances. Upset that Hamlin's engine failed during practice at Indianapolis -- a lingering issue this season for JGR -- driver and crew chief began inquiring about the possibility of using a Toyota-built engine later this month at Michigan.

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