Aggressive calls in push for wins could be NASCAR’s new norm
March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
LAS VEGAS — Life in NASCAR’s revamped points system is a whole new world.
Everything fans knew about how stock car racing determined its champion has changed. A win means an all-but-certain invitation to the championship party this fall, while the standings themselves hardly seem relevant to some drivers.
Evaluating trends and performances is much different — and more difficult — this year. Determining which drivers are off to strong starts and which ones aren’t is not as simple as looking at the standings.
–Take Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon, for example. Those drivers are 3-4-5 in points, respectively, and all have an average finish of 6.3 or better.
A good start to the season after three races, right? Maybe, but every one of them would rather trade places with Kevin Harvick, who is 14th in points with an average finish of 18.3.
Why? Because Harvick, who won at Phoenix International Raceway, is virtually assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And with every week that goes by, those drivers who haven’t won a race will start to feel a bit more pressure.
Only Harvick, Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski, who won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, can truly feel pleased about their seasons. No matter how well anyone else has run, it’s a bit hollow without a victory.
–On the other hand, drivers who have struggled in the opening weeks probably aren’t as worried as they might have been this time last year. As long as they stay in the top 30 — which isn’t hard, as evidenced by Tony Stewart finishing 29th last year despite missing 15 races — then a win should be enough to qualify.
There’s a small chance more than 16 different drivers could win a race in the 26-event regular season, which would mean one victory was no longer enough to earn one of 16 playoff slots, but that’s never happened.
So at the final regular-season race in September, it’s entirely possible the 30th-place driver could pull off a miracle, last-gasp win and get into the playoffs after a miserable first 25 races.
Stewart (27th in points) doesn’t need to panic. Neither does Martin Truex Jr. (25th), Kurt Busch (28th) or even underdog David Ragan (31st), whose Cinderella win at Talladega Superspeedway last year would have gotten him into the Chase under the new format.
–Another interesting twist to this year’s regular season is the effect of winning early. After running out of gas on the last lap Sunday, Earnhardt insisted his team never would have gambled in such a way under the old format (though that was hardly the first time a top driver took a fuel-mileage risk).
WATCH: Final laps of Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas
And Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe said the Vegas win would allow the aggressive team to take even bolder chances with outside-the-box thinking.
As more winners join the current Chase trio, there’s a chance the dynamic of each race could be a mix of confident drivers with nothing to lose and those desperate to win for the first time as the pressure keeps building.
–In addition to the format changes, the learning process about new rules are ongoing.
Teams such as Harvick’s have shown they’ve adapted to the rules package, which includes a taller spoiler and the elimination of a minimum-height requirement, while others are clearly behind.
Bristol Motor Speedway is the next test, since it will be the first true short track race — one of three in the next six weeks.
But how everything will shake out in the 23 races before the Chase field is set still is anyone’s guess.
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