If you want some idea just how wide open the NASCAR Sprint Cup wild-card race really is, consider how things looked coming into last year’s Pennsylvania 500.
A year ago at this time, the two wild-card leaders were Denny Hamlin, who had one race victory and was 11th in points, and Paul Menard, 14th with one victory of his own. David Ragan was breathing down Menard’s neck, just seven points behind him in 16th place with six races to go until the field would be set for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Brad Keselowski? Yes, the Penske driver also had one victory at this point in 2011, as did Regan Smith, but heading into the second Pocono race, Keselowski was 21st in points and therefore ineligible for wildcard consideration.
And, oh yeah, four days before last year’s Pennsylvania 500 — it was 500 miles then vs. 400 now — Keselowski broke his left ankle and wrenched his back in a dramatic head-on crash during testing at Road Atlanta.
Then the damnedest thing happened.
In a stunning upset, Keselowski won at Pocono Raceway, even though he literally could barely lift the trophy in victory lane.
Keselowski followed that up with a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan, another victory at Bristol, sixth at Atlanta and 12th at Richmond.
All of a sudden the Chase had arrived and, in only his second full season in the Sprint Cup Series, Keselowski went on to finish fifth in points, an impressive run to be sure.
And that begs two questions:
1. Can Keselowski repeat at Pocono this weekend?
2. Can anyone else go on the kind of run he went on last year?
Regarding the first question, Keselowski has won six Cup races since the start of 2011, second only to Tony Stewart’s eight victories. He has to be considered a threat to win pretty much everywhere the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge rolls off the trailer these days.
That’s certainly true this weekend, even though Pocono was repaved after Keselowski’s 2011 victory and he struggled on the new surface in June during NASCAR’s first visit here.
“It’s definitely a different racetrack after the repave, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Keselowski. “It’s very fast and very smooth, but the new asphalt took away the outside groove in Turn 3. That was always an ideal place to pass. Even though it’s not the same racetrack as last year, we are still going back as the defending winner of this event. That always provides a level of confidence for any team.”
As to whether any other drivers can close out the regular season like Keselowski did last year, that’s a thornier question.
Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, two top drivers on the outside of the Chase looking in right now, certainly have the cars, the talent and the teams to win a couple of the remaining six races. Edwards has two race victories at Pocono, while Gordon has a staggering five.
“I don’t think we are points racing anymore. I think we are officially racing only for wins,” said Edwards, who finished 11th here in the June race. “We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that. We can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”
Gordon still likes Pocono, having won here in June 2011.
“This track — even after the repave made it smoother and faster with more grip — still has 'old' Pocono characteristics, which I love,” said Gordon. “The shape and the banking of the turns haven't changed. It still has three unique — and three very challenging — corners.”
Ryan Newman and Joey Logano have one victory each and could move into wild-card contention with another victory. Given that Logano won here in June, he will be one of the favorites on Sunday.
As for wild-card dark horses, keep an eye on Marcos Ambrose. The Aussie is the defending Watkins Glen winner and is very good at Bristol, too.
It should be an interesting next six races, to say the least.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.