Win and you're in?
That certainly seems to be the conventional thinking under the new championship format for NASCAR's premier series, one that promises to award the bulk of playoff berths to drivers who have won races during the sport's 26-event regular season. Winning races at the sport's highest level has always brought substantial degrees of gratification and importance, and all that is magnified now. These days, drivers don't just celebrate race victories -- they celebrate virtually guaranteed spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Indeed, that winner's decal now affixed above the B-post in Victory Lane carries a significance well beyond a single afternoon.
"If everybody is telling the truth, we should be in it, so I'm not going to worry about it," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of the Chase, just three minutes and 23 seconds into his media session following his Daytona 500 victory. And indeed, winners in subsequent weeks echoed that sentiment -- they were now free to be aggressive, to not worry about points, to think more about the smaller picture that the bigger one.
"Everybody is assuming that you win and you're in, and that's definitely not the case," the Roush Fenway driver said afterward. "? 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 I think then we will be guaranteed to be in it."
Perhaps Edwards was just being cautious there, still holding fast to the mindset popular under the previous Chase format that it would take a minimum of two race victories to secure a Wild Card berth. Everything has changed now, with the 16 spots in the expanded playoff going to winners first, and filled out with remaining drivers in order of points if necessary. One thing has been clear from the moment the current structure was announced in January -- the route to the Sprint Cup championship now undeniably travels through Victory Lane.
Unless -- there are more than 16 winners? That's certainly the prospect Edwards raised at Bristol, given that he was the fourth different driver to win a race in as many weeks to open the season. "At this rate, there will be 26 winners and it'll be a heck of a battle," he said. He was joking, of course. But if anything remotely resembling that scenario unfolds, this entire playoff race will become an absolute scramble, and good points days are liable to snap back into vogue like a trucker cap atop Kasey Kahne's head.
So, how realistic is all this? Is it possible that one of these race winners celebrating a likely Chase berth could actually be knocked out because too many drivers visit Victory Lane? Over the past decade, the average number of winners over the first 26 races has been 12.7. The totals vary from a low of 10 in 2008 -- when the final nine events of the regular season were all claimed by multiple-time winners -- to a high of 15 in 2011. The catch to that latter total is that Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was ineligible for the Sprint Cup championship, so only 14 race winners that season would have qualified.
Still, that doesn't leave much room for error. The modern-era record for most winners in a single season was set in 2001, when 19 different drivers visited Victory Lane, 15 of them over the first 26 events. Back then, though, there were more teams, and since-shuttered organizations like Bill Davis Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Robert Yates Racing and Andy Petree Racing could be a threat on any given Sunday. And yet, that 2011 campaign saw the likes of Bayne and David Ragan win restrictor-plate events and Marcos Ambrose prevail on a road course, events that could absolutely repeat themselves and swell the list of winners once more.
Hey, 13 different drivers won over the first 26 races last season, and had a few completely plausible things broken differently -- Kurt Busch's battery doesn't die while he's leading the Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt gets a little more of a run in the Daytona 500, Ambrose doesn't get trapped by a caution at Watkins Glen -- suddenly those 16 lines on the new Chase bracket are maxed out, leaving no room for anyone else who might potentially break through. Now, is all that incredibly unlikely? Of course. But strange things can happen. This is a sport, after all, where a race car once ran into a jet dryer.
Having two plate tracks and two road courses in the regular season certainly increases the potential for improbability. Still, the prospect of having 17 or more race winners in a span of 26 weeks seems doubtful at best. Jimmie Johnson, the six-time champion who has yet to receive his own winner sticker this season, certainly does not appear concerned.
"I haven't put much thought into it," he said at Bristol. "The main reason is, 16 transfer, and it's pretty rare that we have 16 different winners in the course of a season. So points still have a pretty big impact on where you are at. ? There is nothing to be concerned about yet -- one, because the year is early, and two, I feel like at least one or two positions will go in via points."
So much depends on how the season goes. If this turns into one of those years when a handful of drivers dominate the schedule -- as was the case in 2008, when Johnson, Edwards, and Kyle Busch won 24 times between them -- the race winners should be able to breathe easy. If it's one of those campaigns where the trophies are more spread out -- like 2012, when the first seven events were claimed by six different drivers -- some of those guys with winner decals might be fretting right down to Richmond, as if nothing had changed.
For the time being, though, drivers with race victories under their belt are cutting it loose. Earnhardt lost the points lead to Brad Keselowski at Bristol, and scarcely anyone noticed.
"You either win, or you don't win. Second (through) last doesn't really matter," the Daytona 500 champion said afterward. Under this playoff format, winning is indeed everything and the only thing. At least, that's what everyone thinks right now.
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