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Paulk: Parity within NASCAR's grasp

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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

On the surface, it looks as if NASCAR has finally achieved some semblance of parity.

This has been a different season, one complete with upsets and bizarre finishes. It began when Trevor Bayne shook up the Sprint Cup establishment in winning the Daytona 500, arguably the biggest motor sports stunner in a decade.

And a number of young upstarts — David Ragan, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith — have out-dueled the likes of five-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and current points leader Carl Edwards.

Then, Paul Menard won a fuel-attrition battle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to capture the checkered flag in the Brickyard 400. It was the long-suffering journeyman's first taste of victory champagne in five full-time seasons — 167 races.

Menard, who signaled his ascent with a qualifying victory at Michigan International Speedway a few weeks earlier, is looking to prove his win at the Brickyard wasn't a fluke when he takes the green flag Sunday in the Good Sam RV 500 at the 2.5-mile triangular racetrack at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond.

Menard will start seventh behind pole-sitter Joey Logano. It will be the 11th time this season Menard has started the No.27 Chevrolet in the top 10.

Despite his recent success, Menard still finds himself with an uphill climb in his efforts to secure a spot in the Chase, considering he's 14th in the points standing. The rest of this year's surprise winners also are fighting the odds — Ragan (Coke Zero 400 at Daytona), Smith (Darlington) and Keselowski (Kansas).

Bayne, whose primary focus has been the Nationwide Series, is in the 51st position. His 41st-place finish at IMS is more reflective of his overall performance than his victory at Daytona.

On the other hand, the string of Cup stunners isn't reflective of the fact that Sprint Cup parity is more myth than reality.

As usual, the heavily financed superstars are likely to qualify for the Chase without much angst. The top 13 rated drivers have all been to the postseason. They have won 15 of 20 races — including a series-best three for both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

Jimmie Johnson, in pursuit of a sixth consecutive Cup title, hasn't been nearly as spectacular as past seasons. Yet, he's only 11 points behind Edwards and one point clear of the third-place Harvick.

Yes, this has been the year of the upset. However, it resembles the past five seasons in that the names on the Cup leader board haven't changed.

But Menard has a fairly good chance of reeling in those on the Chase bubble before the regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway next month. Denny Hamlin, the Cup runner-up in 2010, is 11th and has a win that could solidify his Chase bid if he remains in the top 20.

Menard might have a better shot at qualifying for the Chase if ninth-place Tony Stewart and 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to fall out of the top 10 and fail to pick up a win during the final six regular-season races. Neither has a victory, so it would be advantage Menard.

If Menard can somehow squeeze into the Chase, NASCAR officials can legitimately declare their sport has achieved something resembling parity.

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