Potential. If you do a lookup for a definition of the word, one of the definitions you’ll find is “the inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being.” Potential is also word that’s been commonly used in connection with the careers of David Ragan and Paul Menard. Yet others would say potential is a word that is code for “hasn’t done it yet.”

With his victory in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Paul Menard joins Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan as first-time winners in a NASCAR Sprint Cup points race. For Menard, it caps off a steady progression forward and lowers the volume of critics who say the Wisconsin native only has his NASCAR seat because of his family’s sponsorship money. What’s more, it puts Menard squarely in the mix for what is becoming an increasingly intriguing wild card race that, at this posting, includes Menard, Ragan, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, A.J. Allmendinger, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Juan Montoya.

Throw out the grizzled veterans like Biffle and Martin, and you have another edition of “Young Guns.” With six races to go before the Chase begins, don’t be surprised if this crowded field of contenders takes down one or more of the fading gun slingers in currently in the top ten.

Of all the tweaks NASCAR has made over the past few seasons, they may have a winner with their new points system and wild card qualifier. Suddenly, winning has become a lot more important, as it should be. If Menard, Ragan, or Keselowski capture a win between Pocono and Richmond, it virtually ensures their entry into the 2011 Chase. Do you think they’ll be working to unload their “A” game?

It also puts pressure on just about anybody south of Jeff Gordon in the current points standings. Drivers like Ragan, Keselowski and Smith have all parlayed victories into further moments of brilliance, and if they can smooth out those bumps in between, the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin, Tony Stewart, or Ryan Newman could find themselves overtaken by one of the upstarts.

Gordon’s season demonstrates how stringing together a couple of victories with consistency can do more than just get you into the Chase mix, you may just find yourself seated squarely in the middle of the big boy’s table if you can keep it going.

The way things have been running lately, don’t be surprised if Menard and Ragan get in, while Bowyer and Junior find themselves on the outside looking in. Throw in the fact that the likes of Kahne, Biffle, and Martin don’t need a GPS to find Victory Lane, and things could really heat up down the stretch.

This doesn’t even account for what’s happening up front- where if the Chase started today- Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch currently lead them all to green in wins, with Matt Kenseth and Gordon just behind, and points leader Carl Edwards, defending champion Jimmie Johnson and hard-charging former teammates Kurt Busch and Newman in the mix. 

To quote Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) from Sixteen Candles, “This…is getting good.”

Other articles by Jim McCoy include:

NASCAR, Your Fans Are Waiting
The Best NASCAR Racing You May Be Missing
Road Courses Belong In NASCAR