TMS Media Relations | Mar 25, 2014
NASCAR’s offseason change to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format that placed an added emphasis on winning has proven to be a game changer during the first five races of the Sprint Cup Series season. There have been five races which have produced five different winners and an increased level of pressure on those who have yet to notch a victory thus far.
The new championship format all but guarantees a driver a spot in the Chase with a victory during the first 26 races of the regular season. With a premium on victories, those that have found their way to Victory Lane early this season have the freedom to take risks while those still in search of a victory are willing to do whatever it takes for a win.
“Today when I was thinking about it, my thought was, well, he’s already won a race so he’s got nothing to worry about,” Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski said after edging out Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “That was kind of what I was thinking. I’d have damn near wrecked him, if I had to, with that in mind. It’s part of the deal….”
One of those still in search of a victory is defending six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. The season has provided its ups and downs for Johnson, who started the season with three consecutive top-10 finishes only to experience tire issues during the last two weeks.
Slow starts are nothing new for Johnson as he has not scored a victory in the first five races of the season six times during his 13-year career. Even with the changes to the championship format, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have not hit the panic button on his championship aspirations.
“It’s not even close to time yet,” Johnson said. “When you look at the stats and you have 16 different winners in a year, it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I still think that points are every bit as important as they have been until you get to Homestead. Even when you get into the Chase itself, the top guy in points will advance in pretty much every scenario, even the final one at Homestead. So points are still the focus in what I’m looking at.
“We have been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mind-set. I am not going to chase home runs. I’m looking at a smooth and consistent 26 races, and when we get a look at a home run we are going to swing for it. But we are not stepping up to the plate every time trying to hit it out.”
A victory at Bristol Motor Speedway has given Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards the flexibility to make gambles during the remaining 21 races before the start of the Chase.
With little to risk and next to nothing to lose, the agenda of a driver with a victory early in the season has dramatically changed. Edwards can now race without the pressure of having to secure a victory to guarantee a spot in the Chase.
“I guess I’m part of a group of guys (who) can go have some fun and focus on the final 10 races to get to this championship,” Edwards said following his victory at Bristol. “I’ve been a little bit jealous of those guys who have wins this early in the season. I was thinking I can’t imagine what it must be like to be able to come to the race track like this and have all that pressure off of you. So now we’ll get to go have some fun.”
The trend of different winners to start the season has Edwards focused on securing a second victory to firmly ensure his spot in the Chase.
“There’s been a lot of talk about it,” Edwards said of a victory guaranteeing a spot in the Chase. “I’ve been listening to the radio guys a lot, and everybody is assuming that you win and you’re in (the Chase), and that’s definitely not the case. We have 12 more races, and all of a sudden it turns into there are already 16 winners – year, 12 more (doesn’t make sense).
“But the first step is you have to win. I think we’re proving that right now. You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win, and then I think we will be guaranteed to be in it.”
The shift in philosophy for drivers of having a good points day to simply focus on winning has changed, just ask reigning Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. agrees with the quote made famous by legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi who coined the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” For Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of the entire field, winning has become the sole focus.
“You either win, or you don’t win,” Earnhardt Jr said. “Second (through) last doesn’t really matter.”
Kyle Busch was the latest to join that group as he won Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in a wild green/white-checkered finish. Through the first five races, the race winners are Earnhardt Jr. (Daytona), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix), Keselowski (Las Vegas), Edwards (Bristol) and Busch (Fontana) as the series heads to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend.