NASCAR

Race heats up for 2 wild-card spots in the Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

(Adds graphic. With AP Photos.)By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer

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. ''Seems to be a trend in the Cup Series, that people take gambles on pit road. It was our turn to get aggressive. I told Paul he had to support me. He supported me 100 percent. Three times he had an occasion where he could have said, `No, I don't want to do that.' But he did. Fortunately it worked out.''

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 currently 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.

Team president J.D. Gibbs didn't rule out a potential group effort between JGR and Toyota on an engine for Hamlin at Michigan, another strong track for Hamlin and a critical place for him to lock up a spot in the Chase.

Then there's David Ragan and Brad Keselowski, who both have wins this season and rank outside the top 10 in points. Ragan is 16th in the standings, while Keselowski, at 21st, would have to move inside the top 20 to be eligible for a wild card.

Both drivers are currently racing Menard for the second wild card, but that field could widen at any time. Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are ranked ninth and 10th in the standings, but both are winless. They'd make the Chase if they can stay inside the top 10 in points, but without a win, they have zero breathing room.

Then there's Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle, who are also winless but ranked ahead of Menard in the standings. Should either grab a win over the next six weeks, they'd instantly move into the Chase field.

Jeff Gordon, ranked seventh in points with two victories this season, isn't sure what to expect over this final stretch of summer racing.

''Right now, if you're outside the Chase or you don't think you have a shot at it, especially with the wins now, that definitely adds another element to it to take more risks,'' Gordon said. ''If you're 10 laps short (on gas), that's not risk. That's stupidity. To me, it's risk versus reward.

''The further back you get in the points, the more risky you can get.''

Some might consider the wild card to be nothing more than manufactured drama by NASCAR, which announced the new element before the start of this season. Maybe it is artificial, but it's added an element to the competition and kept drivers in contention who otherwise wouldn't dare dream of a championship at this point of the season.

''It's right in front of us if we continue to run well,'' Ragan said. ''It's going to be a dogfight for points.''

Tagged: Paul Menard, David Ragan, Denny Hamlin

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