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Winning is wild card for Chase berths

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prepares for its annual visit to Watkins Glen International for this weekend's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen, some drivers' hopes to make the Chase for The Cup will be going wild, as in wild car berths.

NASCAR again tweaked its Chase for The Cup qualifying procedures this season. Last year, the top 12 in series points following the 26th race advanced to the 10-race Chase for The Cup regardless of whether or not they had won a race.

This season, the top 10 in points after the 26th race -- Sept. 10 at Richmond -- automatically qualify for the 10-race chase. The change is how the final two berths are determined.

This season these last two spots, referred to as "wild cards," are reserved for the two drivers with the most victories among those ranked Nos. 11 through 20 in the point standings. In the event of a tie in the number of victories, points will be used as the tiebreaker.

NASCAR developed the wild card scenario to put more emphasis on winning races and if the last few races are any indication that goal has been accomplished.

Going into The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis two weeks ago, Tony Stewart was 11th in points followed by Clint Bowyer and David Ragan. Neither Stewart nor Bowyer has won a race in 2011. Ragan won July 2 at Daytona.

Therefore, coming to Indy, even though Bowyer was listed 12th, Ragan moved ahead of him in the wild card standing on the strength of his triumph at Daytona.

When Paul Menard pulled off his stunning victory in the Brickyard 400, he jumped to 14th in points and Ragan slid to 16th. Denny Hamlin, who also has a victory this season, took over the other wild card position. The scenario got even wilder last weekend at Pocono.

Injured Brad Keselowski recorded his second victory of the season, leaping from 21st in points to 18th. As he became the only driver ranked 11-20 in points with two wins, Keselowski surged to a Chase eligible wild card position, bumping Menard and joining Hamlin.

The Chase hopes of Keselowski, Ragan and Menard, under the old format, would have been dead at this point, but under the new format they are very much alive. It could get wilder this weekend on The Glen's twisting-turning road course.

Also this season, for the first time in years, NASCAR redid its race point awarding system, with a winner receiving 43 points. There is a drop-off of one point per finishing position through the remainder of the field.

Drivers also earn a bonus point for leading a lap and the driver who leads the most laps in a race will earn another bonus point. The race winner also receives an additional three points.

It has resulted in closer standings, with the lead having changed hands several times this season already. In the past few seasons, when there was a wider gap in the number of points awarded for race finishing positions, one driver usually led the points parade by a big margin.

This season, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have all taken turns at leading the standings. Last year, Harvick came to The Glen as the point leader by 189 over Jeff Gordon.

This season, due to the new points formula, only 79 markers separate leader Edwards from 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. The new point system, however, makes it harder to move up the ladder. Here is a capsule look at the top 10 in the points as well as the two drivers who would qualify as of now for the wild card spots.

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1. Carl Edwards (720 pts): NASCAR's biggest free agent of this silly season announced last week that he is staying at Roush Fenway Racing. Edwards has a series high 14 top 10 finishes of which 10 are top fives. He won at Las Vegas and came to The Glen last season 10th in points.

2. Jimmie Johnson (711): Seeking his sixth straight Cup series championship, Johnson has 13 top-10 outings but only a single victory in 2011, that at Talladega. He had five wins in 2010 by the time he arrived at The Glen last August and was fourth in the standings.

Johnson has earned the third most points in the last six races accumulating 208. He always seems to turn up the burner in The Chase.

3. Kyle Busch (709): Busch jumped one position in the standings after his second-place run last Sunday at Pocono. Busch and Kevin Harvick each have three race victories on the season. Busch has the most top-five finishes of anyone in 2011 with 11 and also has 13 top-10 results. He came to The Glen last season sixth in the standings. He has amassed the fourth most points in the last six races, gathering 206.

4. Kurt Busch (706): Trailing his brother by just three points, Kurt Busch has been fairly consistent, adding a win this season at NASCAR's other road course event, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., to his 11 other top-10 finishes. He was seventh in points when he came to The Glen last year and has earned the second highest total over the last six races with 215. He gained two spots in the standings after Pocono.

5. Kevin Harvick (700): He has won three times and finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions but Harvick has only six top-five efforts. He had 10 top-fives by this time in 2010. Harvick has earned only the 11th most points (188) over the last six races.

6. Matt Kenseth (694): Always steady but never spectacular, Kenseth is one of three drivers to earn two wins in 2011. He came to The Glen last season without a victory and just eight top-10s but has bolstered his winning ways with 11 top-10 results.

7. Jeff Gordon (668): Gordon came to The Glen a year ago second in points despite having a winless season. He made up for it with 10 top-fives and 12 top-10s. This season, he has won twice but has produced only seven top-fives and 10 top-10s. Helping his cause is the fact that he has the most points in the last six races with 230. Gordon turned 40 years old last week.

8. Ryan Newman (658): This driver is having a much better season after missing The Chase a year ago. Newman was 15th in points at this time last year. He won this season at New Hampshire and has 10 top-10s.

9. Tony Stewart (642): Surprisingly winless in 2011, this former Watkins Glen winner will be hoping to gain a big victory this weekend. Stewart generally runs well at The Glen. He does have a pair of runner-up finishes this season but these are his only top-five results.

Stewart is only 24 points from dropping out of the top 10 in points. If that happens and he does not win, he will be in jeopardy of losing a Chase spot to a wild card contender.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (641): While NASCAR's most popular star comes to The Glen for the first time in a few seasons in a Chase qualifying position, he does not have a win this season and has only three top-five efforts. Earnhardt came close to winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte before running out of fuel with the checkered flag a few hundred yards away.

Like Stewart, if Earnhardt drops out of the top 10 -- he is only 23 points ahead of 11th place Hamlin -- he could miss the Chase for the third straight season. He has struggled at The Glen with 26th, 39th and 22nd finishes.

Wild Card Spots: Hamlin, with a win, is 11th in points (618) so for now he has the first wild card berth. Keselowski, 18th with 558 points and those two wins, has the other wild card spot but his injured ankle could give him problems with the intense shifting and braking that The Glen demands. Bowyer, as mentioned, is winless in 2011. He is 12th (600) in points and unless he rallies to get into the top 10 or wins some races, figures to miss The Chase to another wild card contender.

email: lawrence_o_14075@yahoo.com