Column: Wins now mean everything in NASCAR
Joey Logano lined up directly behind Kevin Harvick and followed him nose-to-tail around the track and across the line for the final restart. He was stalking the leader, looking for what he knew would be his only chance to snatch the victory away from Harvick.
Logano aggressively darted inside of Harvick and briefly flirted with making it a three-wide race before he ran out of real estate at Phoenix International Raceway. The move didn't work, but he had to go for it Sunday.
Under NASCAR's new emphasis on winning, there was little upside to Logano staying put those final nine laps.
"It's all about the win, right?" said Logano, who was third on the final restart and settled for fourth. "Third place really doesn't mean anything. Last year, you may have taken a third place and the points, but this year it's like, 'Hey, go for it.'"
NASCAR Chairman Brian France had grown to despise points racing — that practice of a driver taking few risks in the closing laps of a race, settling for a solid finish, thanking a long list of sponsors and the boys back at the shop, then exulting on live television about the great points finish.
Points racing was already in his cross-hairs last March, when feuding drivers Logano and Denny Hamlin refused to give an inch as they raced for the win at California. Their stubbornness led to a wreck that took them both out of contention on the final lap, and France was hooked.
He wanted drivers to race with that same passion and desire every week, and for wins to matter that much.
So France overhauled the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format, and a regular-season victory virtually guarantees race winners a spot in the 16-driver field. It raised the stakes a week ago at the end of an already frantic Daytona 500, and winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveled in his post-race celebration about not having to spend the next six months of the season worrying about the postseason.
"If everybody is telling the truth, we've won a race, we should be in it, so I'm not going to worry about it," he laughed.
Harvick secured the same fate on Sunday by holding off four separate challenges over the final 40 laps to preserve the victory in a race he dominated. As he celebrated in Victory Lane with his new Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, he was greeted by new team owner Gene Haas, who seemed bewildered by the consequences of Harvick's win.
"The points aren't nearly as important as the wins," he said in an almost questioning tone. "We're talking about the Chase already."
Indeed, in the second race of the season, we're talking about the Chase already. So much so that Brad Keselowski, who has a pair of third-place finishes to start the season and is a mere six points out of the Sprint Cup Series points lead, isn't stoked about what he's left on the table.
"It feels good to run up front, be competitive, but under this system, wins are the only things that count," he said. "Last year you would have said seconds and thirds are great, but this year they're not. They're so-so. Just know we have to be a little bit better and move on from here."
As France said in the pre-race driver meeting before the Daytona 500, drivers have an opportunity each week to "punch their ticket" into the Chase.
They can't ride around in second or third or fifth or eighth place anymore. They've got to talk strategy with their teams, crunch fuel mileage numbers, take risks and gambles. They've got to go for broke when the opportunity exists. They've got to give 100 percent.
Logano has three career victories in 185 career Sprint Cup starts. He doesn't know how many opportunities he'll have to punch his ticket, so when he saw a chance, he did what France expects.
"With a win being so important, you might as well go for it and I tried to stuff it in there three-wide," he said. "Gave up a spot by doing that, but overall it is all about the win."
As the season progresses, teams may now attempt to stretch fuel far longer than ever before. What's the harm in gambling? A Swan Racing or HScott Motorsports or Front Row Motorsports could use some trick strategy to luck into a win, make the Chase and change the entire complexion of their program.
The format also gives a new lease to Danica Patrick, who a month ago simply wanted to consistently finish inside the top 20 this season and improve from last year. But should she now get a win at a restrictor plate race — or Michigan or Martinsville, where she runs well — then suddenly she's in the Chase, too.
All it takes is a decent run and, in some cases, throwing caution to the wind.
Earnhardt did it Sunday at Phoenix when crew chief Steve Letarte told him not to worry about saving fuel — a call Letarte would have made even without the Daytona 500 as a safety net.
"The new system definitely allowed us to be more carefree about that and not have to really think it over," Earnhardt said.
In the end, Harvick cruised to the win. But he knew everyone was going to take their best shot, just as they will all season long.