With six races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, the battle for the wild cards is heating up.
Right now, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. hold the two wild card positions. Jeff Gordon occupies the 10th spot in the point standings, but Gordon, who has yet to win a race this season, is only one point ahead of 11th-place Stewart. Ninth-place Kasey Kahne is just five markers ahead of Gordon.
Stewart and Truex, who is 12th in points, have one victory each. Stewart won the June 2 race at Dover, while Truex took the checkered flag in Sonoma, Calif. three weeks later.
The Sprint Cup Series returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend after running here the second week in June. One year ago, Gordon won at Pocono for a record sixth time. Starting 27th, Gordon took the lead for the first time when a five-car crash occurred just after a restart on lap 91. The four-time Cup champion led eight laps under caution before a severe thunderstorm moved over the area. NASCAR was forced to end the race 62 laps short of its 160-lap, 400- mile distance, allowing Gordon to claim the victory one day after he turned 41 years old.
"Last year, we battled hard all day long and got into a position to battle for the win," Gordon said. "We got a little bit of a 'gift' at the end to win, but we worked hard to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of any miscue."
Gordon's win at Pocono helped him clinch the second wild card position for the 2012 Chase. He edged Kyle Busch for the last playoff spot by just three points.
Gordon finished seventh in last Sunday's race at Indianapolis and moved up two spots in the rankings.
"We've had some fast race cars, but we just need to string together some strong finishes," he said. "It seems like every time we get some decent finishes, something happens to halt that momentum. We have six races left before the Chase, and we need to make the most of them so we can earn a spot."
Gordon is expected to make his 42nd start at Pocono on Sunday, the same day he celebrates his 42nd birthday.
Ryan Newman jumped into the wild card hunt with his win at Indianapolis. Newman, an Indiana native, won the Brickyard 400 for the first time. Sitting 16th in the rankings, he is 25 points behind Gordon. He also is third in the wild card standings.
Newman's No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team plans to use its Indianapolis race- winning car at Pocono.
"It's actually the same race car we had at the first Pocono race that we finished fifth with," Newman said. "We had planned on turning it around and bringing it. We had no idea at that point it would take until Tuesday. What I don't think a lot of people know is, with the NASCAR inspection process, the winning race car is taken from the track back to the NASCAR R&D center (in Concord, N.C.), where they go over absolutely everything. Sometime around lunchtime Tuesday, the team then gets the car back."
Indianapolis and Pocono are both flat tracks that are 2.5 miles in length, but Pocono is a unique triangular track. The turns are wider here than Indy, allowing for more passing in the corners. The Brickyard 400 featured very little passing.
"It's harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono," Stewart said. "There's a fair amount of room going into (turn) one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can go two-wide in (turn) three at the beginning of a run. But it's pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy."
Stewart also moved up two spots in points following his fourth-place run at Indy.
Just 39 points separate Gordon from 19th-place Paul Menard. Brad Keselowski, the defending series champion, fell four spots in the standings to 13th after finishing 21st in the Brickyard 400. Keselowski is six points behind Gordon. He won at Pocono in August 2011.
"I know what kind of team we have, so I'm confident we can get it squared away," Keselowski said. "But any time you go back to a track where you've won before you definitely feel a bit better about what you can do."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the GoBowling.com 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Aug. 4 Race: GoBowling.com 400. Site: Pocono Raceway. Track: 2.5-mile triangular. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 160. Miles: 400. 2012 Winner: Jeff Gordon. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.