LONG POND, Pa – It's about now when the really silly season begins.
And no, we're not talking about the frenzy of free agency.
We're talking about a time of year when there are more differing agendas riding around the track than there are walking the halls of Congress.
"It's kind of starting right now," Carl Edwards said Friday at Pocono Raceway.
Kyle Busch, for example, has all but locked up his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, meaning over the next six races all he has to play for are wins to help pad his lead heading into the playoff. This helps explain his sour mood Friday afternoon just before he went out and qualified a dismal 27th for Sunday's race.
"Terrible," is how he described his car.
Then there's a trio of drivers who, like Busch, are virtually locked into the Chase, but are in desperate need of some wins to help trim the lead Busch and his seven wins will have when the Chase begins. This group includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win, second in the standings), Edwards (3 wins, third in the standings) and Jimmie Johnson (2 wins, fourth in the standings).
Based on NASCAR's somewhat convoluted scoring system, which awards 10 bonus points for each win prior to the Chase, Busch would hold a 50-point lead over his next competitor.
"The difference between second and 20th doesn't matter at all," said Edwards, who has three wins on the season but won't get bonus credit for his win at Las Vegas because his car failed postrace inspection. "You don't race any harder, but you take more chances … just because if there's a chance to win, you gotta win."
Right behind them is another group of drivers who are on the Chase bubble. The members of this group are in a precarious situation; not only do they have to worry about scoring enough points to stay within the Chase window, but they have to be concerned about Busch winning again and putting them in an even deeper hole when the playoff begins.
Jeff Gordon finds himself in this group and is still looking for his first win of the season. The last time Gordon was winless when August came around? Six seasons ago, the year after his fourth and last championship.
"We’re not solidly in; we're right in the middle there," Gordon said. "We can't start taking too many risks to try to get those bonus points, but yet we want to win races and try to stay up front to make sure we're solidly in the Chase.
"Pretty much for the next couple of weeks we're going to go along as business as it has been, and then hopefully we can get ourselves a little more solidly in there," he added. "We can start taking some big risks, whether it's two tires or no tires or changing up the pit strategy and throwing some wacky setups in there. We certainly can't do that right now."
But some can and will.
With passing as difficult as ever, pit strategy has become a crucial factor in determining the winner of a race. Now, it’s even more so – and not just because drivers such as Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards and Johnson are going for broke.
For the likes of Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr., the season is already lost. All they have to race for are wins, meaning they too will employ some risky pit strategies, setting up a chess game where crew chiefs are continuously trying to outthink one another.
Johnson has to be considered the favorite on Sunday, and not just because he'll start from the pole for the second week in a row. As per usual, he and crew chief Chad Knaus are peaking at just the right time. And when they're on their game, no tandem is better.
"I think that definitely got some people’s attention, and shows you just how long of a season this really is and how things can change in an instant," Gordon said of Johnson and his win last weekend at Indianapolis. "Just when you think that one team, one car is going to dominate, you never know when somebody is going to catch up."
Come Monday, there's a very good possibility that the two-time defending Cup champion will be sitting second in the points standings, with three wins under his belt, nipping at the heels of the presumptive champion in waiting, Busch.
From there, it'll be a five-week drag race that will only get sillier and sillier as they close in on the finish.