NASCAR's championship picture became a little more clear once the checkered flag dropped at Pocono on Sunday. Brad Keselowksi won his second race of the season and in doing so moved back into the top 20 and into a provisional Chase for the Championship spot.
In effect, that was the intent of the wild card rule.
NASCAR designed the rule to promote chasing wins in the face of traditional points racing and Keselowski did just that. Keselowski and teammate Kurt Busch gambled with incoming thunderstorms and opted to pit before the rain fell. Raindrops immediately pelted the speedway and Team Penske was trapped at the rear of the field with the storm lasting for nearly an hour.
The gamble paid off when skies cleared and the track dried. Teams in front of the Penske duo darted for pit road and Keselowski and Busch restarted on the front row. The teammates held their track position over the final 50 laps and finished in first and third respectively.
Both drivers' improved their Chase chances, especially Keselowski who jumped from 21st in the standings to 18th. His two wins are more than anyone has in positions 11th through 20th; giving the driver of the Blue Deuce a considerable advantage heading into the next five races. Kurt Busch gained two spots to fourth and is the only driver to maintain a top 10 championship spot throughout the season's 21 races.
After Richmond, the top 10 drivers in the standings will make the Chase for the Championship with two additional drivers with the most wins ranked 11-20 also making the field.
Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart needed strong runs at Pocono to stay in the top ten and they received them. Earnhardt recaptured his spring consistency, running in the top ten all day before finishing ninth. Tony Stewart battled back from a flat tire and finished 11th.
Stewart and Earnhardt leave Pocono ninth and tenth in the standings, with Earnhardt 23 points up on 11th-place Denny Hamlin. By virtue of his win at Michigan, Hamlin would occupy a Chase slot with Keselowski filling out the other.
Unless something radical happens over the next five weeks, it appears that the Chase field is essentially set. Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman are essentially in based on wins and their championship standings while Ryan Newman, Stewart and Earnhardt have built a strong cushion heading into the home stretch.
It all comes down to the wild cards.
NASCAR wanted to duplicate the inaugural Chase cutoff race where Jeremy Mayfield snapped a 147-race winless streak at Richmond to earn the final playoff spot. With positions 11th and 12th merited on race victories, we could be setting up a similar finish for Sep. 10.
Keselowski may have beaten the rush by winning at Pocono.