NASCAR Pocono 2013: Wild Card battle heats up with six regular season races remaining

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Will Pocono bring clarity to the NASCAR Chase Wild Card picture?

During race weekends, there's always a level of uncertainty regarding what might unfold on the race track -- and who'll be left hoisting the trophy in Victory Lane.

This weekend is no different.

The uncertainty, however, doesn't end there.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series approaches the beginning of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the uncertainty surrounding the battle for the Wild Card spots that grant two drivers between 11th and 20th in points entrance into the postseason is palpable.

Although Jeff Gordon, who is 10th in the standings, has yet to capture a checkered flag in 2013, he could eradicate that problem this Sunday at Pocono where he has six career wins, which leads all drivers, current and past. Regardless of whether he wins or not, he is sitting pretty when it comes to the Chase. If the Chase were to begin today or the standings remained unchanged up until the Chase began, he would be one of the top-10 automatic qualifiers.

This weekend, the drivers immediately outside the top 10 will be racing for more than just a victory in the 400 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Pocono Raceway. They'll be racing to make the Chase, possibly stealing a spot from another driver in the top 10. A Wild Card spot, however, would suffice if there was no room.

Gordon will likely need a win or top-10 performance (only 12 points separate eighth-place Greg Biffle and 13th-place Brad Keselowski) to remain ensconced in the top 10, and everyone can rest assured that he'll be gunning for win No. 7.

That could be harder than it sounds, however, if recent track history is any indication. Ten different drivers have won the last 12 Pocono races and many drivers perform their best here. The last 10 victors include June's winner Jimmie Johnson, last August's winner Gordon, Joey Logano, Keselowski, Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.

With Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman as the only drivers between 11th and 20th in the standings with a win currently outside the top 10 looking in, a victory this weekend at Pocono would go a long way in securing them a position in the Chase, regardless of whether they move into the top 10.

Currently, Stewart and Truex are ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, separated by only four points. Newman resides 20 points further back in 16th.

Stewart and Truex, who both have one win this season, hold the current provisional spots into the Chase. If one of them were to falter, however, Newman would gladly take their spot.

Coming off a huge win in Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indy, Newman is looking forward to this weekend in the hopes of pulling off back-to-back victories.

"It's not out of the question," Newman replied when asked about his chances of winning for the second time in as many weeks. "I'd say there's a better chance than if we were heading to Sonoma this week."

In 23 starts at the triangular-shaped track, Newman has eight top fives and 11 top 10s, including a win in July 2003. His average finish at Pocono is 12.0, second-best among all tracks.

Newman isn't the only one excited about his Indy victory and what it means. Teammate and owner Stewart knows the win was not only big for Newman, but for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization and their efforts to make a serious run at the title.

"Indy was obviously a big step," said Stewart, who has won twice at Pocono. "Our teammates are running really well, too. I think we still have some work to do, but Ryan's win last week is proof that we can do it -- that our organization can do it.

"We know we have the tools in place to accomplish the goal. It's just a matter of getting there."

In 29 starts at Pocono, Stewart has 12 top fives and 21 top 10s, more than at any other track. In addition, he's been running at the end of 27 of the races.

Although Truex is the only driver of the three without a victory at Pocono, he's run pretty well. He's been running at the end of all 15 races he's competed in and finished on the lead lap in 14 of them. He finished a lap down during his inaugural visit. His best outcome has been a pair of third-place finishes, coming in June 2007 and in this event last season.

Despite his difficulties during the June race that left him 23rd, he is confident his team has a plan to handle the tricky Pocono layout better. Furthermore, he understands the importance this weekend's race plays on his chances of making the Chase.

"We struggled last time and I believe this race is going to dictate whether we make the Chase or not," Truex said. "We're approaching this race a lot differently from last time because what we struggled with at Pocono is very similar to what we struggled with last weekend at Indy.

"I am optimistic that all of the great people we have working back at the MWR shop have given us a better chance with this new Toyota."

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