Kevin Harvick vs. the world.
With just two races remaining before the Chase field is set following Richmond next Saturday night, much of the NASCAR world's focus is on the battle for the final spots in the 12-driver field. But while those drivers mentioned above jockey for position in what won't even be a compelling contest unless someone currently in the top 12 encounters trouble or has a terrible race, those fortunate enough already to be in (or just about in) the Chase are part of an entirely different battle.
For those who will be battling for the championship once the playoff opener at New Hampshire rolls around, Chase seeding is determined by wins and wins alone. Some drivers have even professed for weeks now to being focused solely wins, as points leads like the one third-place Denny Hamlin has over sixth-place Jimmie Johnson can become deficits at Loudon because Johnson has three more wins than Hamlin.
As part of NASCAR's effort to place more of an emphasis on winning, each victory during the first 26 races is worth 10 additional points once the Chase begins. So as of now, points leader Jeff Gordon and Johnson would start the Chase 40 points ahead of Clint Bowyer because the Hendrick teammates have four wins apiece and Bowyer has yet to find victory lane.
But is a 10-point bonus enough?
Putting aside for now any debate on the merits of this format and NASCAR's decision to not seed simply based on the standings after 26 races, whether wins should be rewarded even more within this system seems like a topical question.
After all, 10 points could be roughly a one- or two-spot difference in finishing order in one race, depending on bonus points. Essentially, it's a dropped lug nut on pit road or a missed shift; NASCAR wants to reward victories, but is that all a win is worth?
Or should NASCAR give more than 10 points for each victory?
"No, I think it's pretty good the way it is. It's a huge incentive," Gordon said. "You see guys pushing hard to try to get those bonus points. That's the only thing that's going to separate you from the others. Any more than (10 points) and you might have too much separation if somebody goes on a big winning spree."
The Chase does bring NASCAR's playoff contenders closer together, but shouldn't winning do just what Gordon warns against – separate the field?
"A win is so hard to get in this sport," said Carl Edwards, who sits fifth in points and has two victories thus far this season. "I think it will probably end up being more like 20, 25 points. That would make a big difference in the Chase."
NASCAR can counter any criticism around the alleged lack of value of a 10-point bonus by pointing to the 2004 season. That year, the first using the Chase format, saw Kurt Busch win the championship by just eight points over Johnson and 16 over Gordon.
The title margin, however, hasn't been closer than 35 points since.
"(Ten points) doesn't seem like a lot, but I lost the points championship by eight points one year, but last year was a much larger margin," said Johnson, who took last season's title by 56 points. "It kind of depends on how things play out."
NASCAR has shown its willingness to tweak its points format in recent seasons, and some drivers seem to expect that to continue. There is a sentiment that while 10 points ultimately might not be enough, it does serve as a good jumping-off point from which NASCAR can evaluate the rule's effectiveness.
"I think 10 is a good place to start," Johnson said. "I know NASCAR wants to keep it exciting and fair at the same time. … If we get through the Chase and they don't think it's right, I think they'll change it."
Edwards agrees that initially awarding 10 points before reevaluating makes sense. But if and when that reevaluation does occur, Edwards believes it will lead to a larger reward for race winners.
"What's really exciting – there are things that come along with a win," Edwards said. "You know you are going to be in the all-star race, but if you also knew you were really going to get a big advantage going into the Chase, that's pretty huge.
"I think the 10 points is just enough so where it's like, 'well, it's a good thing, but it's not that big a deal.' If a win was 20 or 25 points at the beginning of the Chase, I think it would change some things. I think that's going to happen."
Not all drivers share Edwards' and Johnson's opinion, however.
While Gordon would like to see some sort of bonus – either points or money – awarded to the driver sitting atop the standings after the first 26 races (this season, that would be Gordon), he disagrees that NASCAR's current system makes winning during the "regular season" more important than finding victory lane during the Chase.
Despite being one of the drivers who has talked plenty about being motivated by bonus points in recent weeks, Gordon says winning a race is incentive enough.
"In the final 10 races, if you're going for the Cup and you win the race, it's huge," he said. "Just because it doesn't pay 10 bonus points – you want the win, you want the points that come along with it, you want the momentum.
"You want everything that's going to help you win a championship, which is what we're really all here to do."
Hamlin is another one of those drivers who has professed to being focused on bonus points as the Chase approaches. The 10-point bonus has been enough to affect his team's strategy, apparently, but perhaps not Hamlin's motivation.
"You want to put an emphasis on winning, and over the last 10 weeks, the guys who are really confident where they are at in the Chase have been going for nothing but wins, not caring whether they run out of gas," Hamlin said. "(But) by giving it more points, you're not going to make guys want to win any more than they already do. I really don't see a difference if they changed it."
Matt Kenseth, who like Hamlin has one win this season and already is locked into the Chase, said he doesn't even care whether NASCAR awards more bonus points for winning.
In fact, he doesn't think the bonus points make all that much difference.
"You say more people are going for wins, but I don't think that's right," Kenseth said. "Everybody is going for wins every week. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've never got in a race car and been out there and said, 'Man, I could win today, but I think I'll run fifth.' That just doesn't make any sense.
"We go out and try to win races."