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New slate of drivers challenging for title
There is a lot of focus right now on which of the big-name stars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series might miss the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
I think we need to give equal focus to those that are making the most of the opportunity to possibly get into their very first Chase.
With the advent of the two wild-card spots in the Chase format, an exciting element has been added to our sport that has taken us to another level. For the first time, the top 10 drivers in points will lock into the Chase field, with the next two spots available to drivers that are ranked 11th through 20th in the points with the most wins.
It’s amazing to watch this year as these drivers target that elusive one win with the hopes that would be enough to propel them into the Chase.
You heard us say over and over again as the season started that the motto these teams had was “win and you are in,” meaning if you were outside the top 10 in points, yet inside the top 20 in points and got at least one win, you probably were going to get one of the two wild-card spots.
The interesting dynamic that has taken place, and what I don’t think anyone planned on, is we have had five first-time Cup winners this year. That has been a game changer because now just a single win isn’t going to do it. I think some of these teams that did get a win got complacent and felt either that would be enough or they would easily get a second win along the way.
When that hasn’t happened, the tension level raised to the roof as they realized there are guys like Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and David Ragan putting up numbers that probably will knock some bigger names out.
Those three realize the opportunity that is within their grasp and they are trying to maximize it. Actually, in a guy like Ragan, who is fighting to save his sponsor and probably his job, you might call it an opportunity of a lifetime.
You’ve got guys like Denny Hamlin that, while he does have a win this year, they can’t seem to get it together. Remember this is a team that fought all the way to the end of 2010 for the championship and racked up eight wins.
Then you have big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer that can’t close the deal on a single win this year. There’s a real possibility that some if not all three could miss this year's Chase.
Personally I think the most lethal newer face that will probably be in the Chase is Keselowski. Even though he had the one win earlier this year, he was outside the Top 20 in points. It was after he got that second win that the transformation took place, not only with him but that entire organization.
I was in their shop a couple weeks ago and the energy in that place is unbelievable. I’ve been fortunate in my career to experience that first hand, so when I walked in I recognized and felt it immediately. The focus, the energy, the confidence, the preparation, and the chemistry inside that building were profound. I need to add it just wasn’t the No. 2 car. You also feel it with the No. 22 bunch as well.
Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Keselowski was driving in his debut Camping World Truck Series race. His talent got him noticed and he moved to JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
His success there was the springboard that got him noticed by team owner Roger Penske. Not only has he won a Nationwide Series title for Roger, but now he is on the verge of making his first Chase. I’m telling you now, this cat is a serious contender to possibly win the 2011 Chase as well as that team is clicking right now.
I think it would be a disservice to someone like Brad that we focus on the ones that might miss the Chase and not focus on such a positive like what Brad is doing. I believe he is positioned to rock a lot of peoples' worlds this year once the Chase starts, including Mr. Five Time – Jimmie Johnson.
I’ve said this was the year of surprises. It all started in Daytona with this virtual unknown, driving for a legendary yet part-time team winning our Super Bowl. It didn’t stop with Trevor Bayne’s win, though. Four other guys joined him in getting the first Cup win of their careers. That’s exciting for the fans and our sport.
I don’t think some teams fully appreciated and realized what the changes to the points system and the addition of the wild-card portion of the Chase determination would have on our sport this year.
They maybe didn’t take advantage of their opportunities earlier this season and now, with only three races left before the Chase, they are seeing the sands in the hourglass running out.
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