NASCAR's goal when it implemented the two wild card spots for the Chase for the Championship was to create an ever-changing situation that would carry all the way through the last race of the regular season at Richmond.
Thus far, mission accomplished.
Heading to this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, there have been eleven different winners in 15 races. One can almost safely assume that the four repeat winners - Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Brad Keselowski - will be able to fall back on a wild card spot even if they fall outside the top-10 in points.
Four more drivers - Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, and Kasey Kahne - currently sit outside the top-10 but have visited victory lane. If the regular season were to end now, Busch - despite three-straight engine failures - and Newman - despite not recording a single top-10 since his victory at Martinsville - would take the wild cards.
Of course, the regular season doesn't end now, and the already-murky Chase picture could be complicated even more by the time this weekend's 110-lapper is complete.
As we stated in our race preview, Sonoma is a true "it ain't over till it's over" race track. A driver can be solidly in the top-five and get spun in the last corner and lose 20 positions or more. That same driver can just as easily overdrive one of the corners and wind up sliding through the sand on either side of the racing surface, which will likewise kill his position and cost him a number of points.
There will be a handful of different groups of racers to watch this weekend. One, of course, will be the contenders for victory, road racing aces like Stewart and Jeff Gordon - in as dire need of a victory as ever as he sits just 20th in the standings. Another, will be all of the drivers just in front of and just behind 10th-placed Keselowski.
Eighth-placed Stewart, with his two wins, is a somewhat comfortable 35 points to the good. Clint Bowyer in ninth is 25 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who sits 11th without a victory this season, usually a somewhat substantial number but one in peril with a road race looming. Busch's three engine failures have dropped him 26 points behind Keselowski, one he could conceivably overcome with another strong showing - he won here in 2008 - and a bad one for the Penske driver.
Of course, the points deficits grow a little more with each driver behind Busch, including Newman (31 out of the Chase), and the winless Paul Menard (37). No one else could mathematically overhaul Keselowski in the standings at the end of this weekend's race, and only Edwards could displace Bowyer. Though a restrictor plate race at Daytona looms in two weeks, opportunities to knock a large chunk of points will certainly dwindle after the checkered flag flies Sunday.
That is where the wild cards will come into play.
Kahne, a former Sonoma winner, had seemingly been well on his way to making the Chase without needing to rely on a wild card spot. That was before crashes at both Pocono and Michigan the last two weeks left him 67 points outside the top-10. Of course he could still make that up in 11 races should he resume the top-10 string that took him from well outside even the top-20 in points to within striking distance of the Chase just a couple of weeks ago. A second victory on the road course would mean a second win in 2012, however, and would make him a favorite for at least one of the wild card spots with just 10 races until the cutoff at Richmond.
Australian V8 Supercar champion and consistent road course - and lately, oval track - frontrunner Marcos Ambrose could certainly help his chances of making the Chase with a victory this weekend. Though the one win would still probably leave him behind several other drivers in the pecking order for a wild card, he would already have one win in his back pocket heading to Watkins Glen in August. He won there last year and has dominated the track in Nationwide Series competition, and if he could sweep the road races and continue his consistency when only turning left, it would make him a strong threat to make the Chase. An oval win seems in his near future, though, and he may not even need to rely on his immense road racing skills.
Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian ex-Formula 1 race winner, is 19th in the standings. His two career Sprint Cup wins have come on the two road courses, and he is always a threat to win when the circuit visits either of them. His Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team has been far less consistent on ovals than the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford outfit of Ambrose and he sits barely inside the top-20 in points as it is, but a win Sunday would at least give Montoya a puncher's chance of racing for the title this fall. And once you're in the Chase, as Tony Stewart proved last year, anything can happen from that point on.
The big headliner will be Gordon, though. He finally got one monkey off his back last Sunday in Michigan, at least parlaying a top-10 run into a top-10 finish without having some stupid circumstance drop him down the running order. Top-10s will not be nearly enough to get Gordon into the Chase at this point, however. He is tied with Jeff Burton for 20th in the standings, 83 points in arrears to Keselowski. Gordon has to win, win again, and quite possibly win at least once more in the final 11 races before the Chase if he is to contend for his fifth championship. He is the all-time wins leader at Sonoma with five, but none of those wins have come in the "Car of Tomorrow" platform utilized since 2007. Still, he is Jeff Gordon, and until he is officially eliminated from the Chase picture, he is perhaps the favorite of any driver on the outside looking in to make the playoff, no matter how bleak his position may be.