By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
When police captain Louis Renault sent his subordinates to “round up the usual suspects” after a shooting in the film “Casablanca,” they didn’t hesitate. They knew exactly who to look for. 

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has been a little like that. With few exceptions, the drivers we have seen vying for the title since the Chase was implemented in 2004 have been the same ones we expect to see in Victory Lane each week, including Carl Edwards, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and of course, Jimmie Johnson. 

In seasons past, the Chase field has been determined strictly by points. If you weren’t in the Top 12 following the August race at Richmond, you were out. This occasionally created a situation where winless drivers during the regular season were contending for the championship, while race winners could hope for no better than a 13th-place finish for the year. 

Prior to the start of the 2011 season, NASCAR announced the addition of a new “wild card” rule. It seemed a little complicated at the time, but it’s actually pretty simple. This year, the top 10 in the driver standings after the Richmond event are locked in, but the remaining two positions will be filled by guys ranked in spots 11 through 20 who have won races in 2011. So hypothetically, if you’re ranked 18th and have a victory or two to your credit, you could leap-frog right over the 11th-place guy, who is winless, and make the Chase. 

The announcement generated a flurry of discussion and debate, pretty evenly divided between the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “Wins should be rewarded” camps. Some discounted the wild card component, as experience has taught us that NASCAR’s cream invariably rises to the top – or to the Top 12, as the case may be. 

So we settled in to see how it would all play out. 

The result has surely been greater than even NASCAR might have expected. From day one, the 2011 Cup season has resembled a James Patterson novel, full of plot twists and turns, last-minute rescues and unlikely heroes with -- also like a James Patterson novel – a brand-new edition every week. 

For months, the Top 12 has been a revolving door of drivers. The ladder’s lower rungs are no longer relatively secure, as fortunes can change with nothing more than a single well-played hand. 

We have seen several drivers this year become potential championship contenders with their first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne is competing for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship and is therefore ineligible for the Chase. Regan Smith and David Ragan, however, who won at Darlington and Daytona respectively, still have a shot at it, reminding us that with wild cards in the deck, any hand can win the jackpot. 

But it took Paul Menard for me to truly grasp what a momentous change the wild card component has turned out to be. Menard hails from a family reportedly worth billions of dollars, and in the manner of supportive parents throughout history, his father, John Menard, has supported his son’s struggle to succeed in his chosen field. 

This particular brand of parental support has entailed a bit more than allowing his son to crash in the basement while trying to get on his financial feet. The elder Menard, an ardent supporter of racing, has worked long and hard to get to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was fielding Indy cars before Paul was born, and determinedly backed his son all the way to one of NASCAR’s top teams, despite snarky observations about Menard buying rather than earning his way into a coveted seat at Richard Childress Racing. 

Paul proved willing and able to prove his father’s investment strategy a sound one, narrowly beating perennial favorite Jeff Gordon to win one of NASCAR’s most prestigious events, the Brickyard 400 on July 31. Appropriately, the emotional father and son knelt together for a time-honored tradition after the race. "I've been waiting to kiss these bricks for such a long time,” John said. The win propelled Paul to the 12th position in the Chase field standings headed into the Pocono race weekend August 5-7. 

NASCAR pundits are going to have a beast of a time attempting to determine this year’s biggest headline. Was it Bayne taking the Wood Brothers back to Victory Lane? Perhaps Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth title, or Dale Earnhardt Jr., currently fighting to remain in the Top 10, will win his first. Ragan’s success this season certainly hasn’t hurt his relationship with Roush Fenway Racing, and the Menard family’s triumph at Indy after more than 30 years of trying was wonderful to watch. 

I am beginning to suspect that NASCAR’s 2011 Cinderella story just might turn out to be the revised Chase itself. The number of races remaining before the ball can now be counted on one hand, and we still aren’t completely sure who’s invited, much less who will be wearing the glass slipper at evening’s end. 

In an environment where literally anything can happen, it does. To say that this year’s dance is literally going to be a wild one is gambling’s rarest phenomenon – a completely safe bet. 
* * * Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site: Contact Cathy