NASCAR Chase Wild Card Rule Has Injected New Life Into Summer Stretch

LONG POND, PA - AUGUST 06: Paul Menard, driver of the #27 CertainTeed/Menards Chevrolet, stands by his car on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono Raceway on August 6, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Typically, July and August are not NASCAR's finest months.

By mid-summer, the Chase field has typically been set with the exception of a few bubble spots. Any driver from about 15th and below in the standings has been virtually eliminated and any first-time winners are a nice story that lasts for a week before everyone moves on.

But that's all changed this year. And the genius of NASCAR's new wild card rule gets all the credit. (Click here for the updated NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings)

When NASCAR unveiled its new points system, the lack of bonus points for a victory – only three – was disappointing. It did nothing to solve a major problem in the minds of many fans: That drivers will settle for a "good points day" instead of going all-out for the win.

That's more perception than reality, of course, but it's what fans believe. So three bonus points instead of, say, 10? That wasn't enough to make any driver do something crazy for a victory.

The points system alone didn't seem to put enough emphasis on winning. But no one is talking about that anymore.

These days, thanks to the wild card, it's all about the wins, baby.

The wild card rule had potential when it was first announced, but even NASCAR probably could not have anticipated the influx of different winners this season that has made the 2011 campaign one of the most unique in years.

As a quick refresher: NASCAR decided the Chase field would be set with the top 10 drivers in points, and then the next two drivers in points (from 11th to 20th place) who have the most wins.

Early in the season, garage insiders were so skeptical about victories coming from 11th-to-20th-place drivers that some speculated one win would be good enough for a wild card berth.

And while it still might, it's certainly no guarantee.

Paul Menard and David Ragan, for example, both have victories but would miss the Chase if it started today. And even Brad Keselowski, now with two wins, will have to fight to stay inside the top 20 – or lose his wild card position.

NASCAR's new rule has made any driver in the top 25 in points still feel like they have a shot at the Chase during the summer stretch. That's almost doubled the number of drivers who were typically in the running at this same point in previous seasons.

Heck, even 22nd-place Martin Truex Jr. was getting Chase questions on Sunday. And why not? If he wins two of the next five races, he could be in.

Some fans have griped about how the Chase will be watered down if the 20th-place driver gets in via wins. To that, I say: Who cares?

Like the Chase wasn't watered down already when NASCAR added the 11th- and 12th-place drivers? At least a 20th-place guy with a couple wins would have done something to show he belonged in the playoff.

And let's be honest: If a 20th-place driver makes the Chase, he's going to be an afterthought after a few weeks, anyway – just like the drivers from about eighth to 12th used to be. No one can run 20th all season and then suddenly contend for the title.

The wild card system has benefited from the amount of unusual winners, though, which means some year in the future will see only a couple drivers outside the top 10 win a race. Then everyone will complain that the wild card is pointless.

It's not. So far, it's been a very good thing – and we can't even imagine how interesting it will make the final five races before the Chase.

Picture the drama if Ragan wins Richmond to put himself into the Chase on the same night when Hamlin claws his way back into the top 10? It's highly likely there could be two playoff races happening at the same time.

It still would have been preferable if NASCAR offered more than three bonus points for a win, because "good points days" are going to be all the rage again once the Chase begins.

But for now, in the usually ho-hum summer stretch? The wild card rule has been nothing short of brilliant.

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