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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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NASCAR racing returns to the Brickyard

Paul Menard hopes lightning can strike twice. Last year, his fifth season of running the Cup circuit full time without a win, Menard shocked the NASCAR Sprint Cup world with his victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where 14 of 17 previous winners were champions Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott.
The Brickyard 400 victory turned out to be the season’s high point for Menard, who finished 17th in the championship standings. It was his last of four top-five finishes and also Menard’s most recent. He returns for the July 29 race ranked 15th in points – and still in the running for a Chase “Wild Card” berth.

For Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman, Indy is a homecoming. Both grew up in Indiana as did Gordon, who left his native California in early childhood to race open wheel cars in the Hoosier State.
Newman continues to pursue a milestone 50th Coors Light Pole. He’s won at least one pole at 16 different tracks – but not at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he’s qualified six times among the top five.

Kasey Kahne’s second victory of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway broke up a four-driver deadlock for the two coveted “wild card” qualifying entries into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kahne isn’t sure that will be enough to lock up a berth in the post season with seven races remaining until the Chase field is set Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway. 

“Two helps, but three would put you in a real good spot. We’re going to stay after it,” Kahne said in his post-race media interview Nothing is certain with seven races remaining until the post-season lineup is set, but drivers currently holding a top-10 position have plenty of breathing room. It’s crowded between fifth and 10th places – only 15 points separates Denny Hamlin (currently in fifth) and Brad Keselowski in 10th. Everyone else is virtually one race worth of points or more out of a lock-in.

Kyle Busch currently holds the second “wild card” with a single victory and a rank of 13th in the standings. Ryan Newman, however, is nine points back in 14th with Joey Logano – the third single race winner 11th through 20th in points – is 16th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. just keeps on rolling down the line. With a fourth-place finish at New Hampshire on July 15, Junior extended his record streak of lead lap finishes to 19. Standings leader Matt Kenseth held the previous mark of 14 in 2007.

Earnhardt and Kenseth have another connection this season – the championship race. Earnhardt moved back into the No. 2 spot in the standings with his eighth top-five finish, his best since posting 10 for the entire 2008 season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports. Kenseth’s lead over Earnhardt with seven races remaining until the post season is 16 points. Each has won one race. Junior is 24 points ahead of third-place Greg Biffle, also a one-race winner. Although Earnhardt remains optimistic about his title changes, he admits there’s work to be done before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.
“We just need a tick more speed. We’ve gotten faster. We’ve found speed and improved,” he said. “You just need a little bit more to really be one of those dominant cars every week.”

Even those outside the top 20 shouldn’t give up hope just yet. One look at Brad Keselowski’s 2011 season should calm some nerves. After 19 races last season, Keselowski ranked 23rd in points, and was 25 points outside the top 20. Over the final seven races in the 2011 Race to the Chase, Keselowski had two wins and six top 10s to capture the No. 1 Wild Card spot. His worst finish was 12th, at the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cut-off race at Richmond. 

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