With 13 races behind them, Sprint Cup drivers are halfway to the Chase and a whole lot closer to finding out how this year's wild card system will impact races down the stretch. In previous years, drivers that finished 11th and 12th in the point standings would automatically advance to join the top ten drivers in the postseason. Now the remaining two spots will go to drivers outside the top ten who have the most wins, as long as they are in the top 20 in points.
Was the wild card designed to get a new driver in the Chase mix or be a glimpse of hope for previous championship contenders? The way the field has played out so far, NASCAR has two perfect candidates for those roles -- Kansas winner Brad Keselowski and last year's Chase finalist, Denny Hamlin.
Winning last weekend's race puts Keselowski in the same category as Jeff Gordon and unlikely Darlington winner Regan Smith: They all sit outside the top ten with a win. But while Gordon finds himself 18 points back in the No. 13 spot, and Smith struggles to remain relevant at No. 29, Keselowski is right on the playoff bubble at No. 21. He needs to work hard and run top-20 from here on out.
But I think the key race for Keselowski is a couple of weeks away at Michigan International Speedway. Michigan has always been a great race for the Penske cars. Roger Penske used to own the track and there just seems to be an extra emphasis on doing well. On top of all that, Michigan is the home track for Keselowski, a Rochester Hills native.
The last couple of weeks have showcased huge strides in Penske Racing as far as moving forward and starting to get results with some changes that they've had at the facility. With people moved around and the engineers putting in great work, the whole team is really making gains. It's not that they were really struggling before, as Kurt Busch's points standing proves, but the improvements in chemistry and communication could be crucial to Keselowski's wild card chances.
While Keselowski looks to improve on just his second Sprint Cup victory, Denny Hamlin is coming off a 2010 season where he was the guy pegged to knock off Jimmie Johnson for the title. He won eight races and narrowly lost out on a chance to capture the championship in the last race of last season. Now he's on the outside looking in -- One point back from Ryan Newman and the No.10 spot.
Knowing Hamlin's personality, this isn't a comfortable position for him. Winning a championship is now a distant focus. He needs to zone in on winning a race and trying to make the Chase and that changes your mentality as a driver. You feel like you're behind the eight ball. You can't make a big mistake. Last year, Hamlin was confident and taking chances. This year, those same moves are risky because his postseason hopes are on the line.
But I think the No. 11 car will seal his Chase spot at Pocono this weekend. He has four wins there in just ten career starts and took last season's race in stride. Another victory would really set the stage for another Chase run. The other key races for him are Kentucky and New Hampshire. Kentucky Speedway will hold its first Cup series race and Hamlin, along with crew chief Mike Ford, adapts to new tracks very well. They might not come out of there with a win, but it could be a key spot for him to gain points. Joe Gibbs Racing also does a great job at New Hampshire, so look for that to be another track where Hamlin can make gains.
Whether the wild card ultimately benefits the new guy or the guy that everyone expects in the Chase, it should make for an interesting thirteen races with a little bit more on the line.
Johnny Benson is a former NASCAR Nationwide and Truck Series champ who serves as an analyst on ESPN's NASCAR Now and mentor to numerous drivers.