The race for the chase has gotten so tight, it's out of control. The wild card system is adding extra excitement, and the last few spots are still up for grabs. So how does it get any more tense?
In addition to the pressure of the Chase, drivers who win in August and manage to grab the checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend will win $1 million for their team, $1 million for their charity of choice and $1 million for a lucky fan who picks them to win (see www.sprint.com/speed for details). It's the Sprint Summer Showdown, and the extra pressure is not for the timid. Any driver who hopes to win this month had better be able to take the heat.
Tony Stewart is perfect for this setup. He's a veteran who has won on the biggest stage, and I see him getting into the Sprint Showdown with a win at Watkins Glen this weekend. Smoke is masterful on road courses, and I really expect him to be aggressive and attack this track. I've been riding him in my picks lately, and I think he's got his issues worked out. His team runs well at Watkins Glen and he's always good around this time of year, so I think he can get himself in and get a shot at that $1 million.
This thing is going to get really interesting by the time we get to Atlanta. Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard are both locked in to the Showdown, and I think that even though their Chase spots aren't quite sewn up yet, there's no chance they're going to race conservatively with a million dollars on the line. RCR always runs well in Atlanta, and Penske has won there with Kurt Busch, so there's a great chance either of those guys could win it.
If you're asking for my pick to win the Showdown, I'm taking Brad Keselowski. I think he's got the horsepower and the momentum to take it. And that million dollars is a huge motivator. With the economy weak and sponsors really hard to come by, teams are grabbing every dollar they can. You could run this thing like the Dash for Cash the Nationwide series did a while back and give away $100,000 and it would still be big. But a million is a whole new ball game. This is going to be thrilling, and giving money to charity as well as a very lucky fan is a fantastic perk too -- it never hurts to add a new lifelong fan.
One driver I'd love to see get into the Showdown is someone from my era: Mark Martin. I think Mark would be great for this sort of event, because he's the type of driver who can pull a win out of any race in crunch time, and in the end this thing is going to come down to winning on Labor Day weekend. Mark had an unbelievable year last year, and he's always capable of surprising everybody. Not only would I love to see a real underdog get involved with this Showdown, I also think Mark is the perfect driver for it.
Between Mark, Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard, we'd have some wild cards in this thing, and that is the best way to make a race for a million dollars even more exciting.
Rusty Wallace joined ESPN after retiring from driving following the 2005 season. He won 55 races and was the 1989 NASCAR champion. In addition to serving as the lead studio analyst for ESPN's NASCAR coverage, Wallace contributes to "SportsCenter," "First Take" and ESPNEWS.