RICHMOND, Va. — Every year, as every sport's regular season winds down and the postseason draws near, the question arises: is it better to clinch your spot in the playoffs early, thus ensuring time to rest up, or come in with momentum, seizing a postseason berth on the season's last day?
In recent years, NASCAR teams have tended to lock up their Chase spots well in advance of the regular-season-ending Richmond race, and this year's wild card scenario meant that drivers like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch effectively clinched their spots before Independence Day.
There are, of course, competing theories on the value of clinching early. On one hand, it allows you time to set your rotation, to borrow a phrase from baseball; to look ahead and prepare for the upcoming tracks in a way you can't if you're just focused on securing wins or good finishes, week after week. On the other, though, it's very easy to get soft and comfortable, to ease out of the must-win mindset and start the offseason break a little too early. Teams in constant contention for a postseason spot don't have the luxury of relaxing, and that focus can translate to an extra edge during racetime.
In NASCAR, the recent trend seems to be a combination of the two: clinching early but coming into the Chase with momentum. If there's a switch you can flip, Jimmie Johnson knows where it is. In 2007, after the Bristol race, the 24th of the season, Johnson sat in sixth place, 524 points behind leader Jeff Gordon. He was already locked into the Chase, but won the next two races to close out the regular season, and would go on to win four straight in the Chase to hammer down the first of his five consecutive Cup championships.
And just last year, Johnson was ninth in the standings coming out of Bristol, 444 points behind leader Kevin Harvick, but used two straight third-place finishes to build momentum for the Chase, and followed that with top-10 finishes in nine of the 10 Chase races.
So with that in mind, who's got the momentum right now? Johnson, of course: he has six top-five finishes in his last eight races. His Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has top 10s in 10 of the last 13 races, and hasn't finished below 17th in that span. And you know Brad Keselowski's story: in his last six races, he's got two wins, four top-threes, and no finish lower than 9th.
On the other end of the spectrum, you've got half a dozen guys who are praying that Denny Hamlin falters and they can pull out a miracle win at Richmond. If they somehow complete the unlikeliest of comebacks, can they sustain the leave-it-all-on-the-track momentum that got them into the Chase?
Where do you come down on the question? Getting rested and ready for the playoffs early, or entering with a running start?