It only took the second stop on the Sprint Cup schedule to figure out that the new format for determining who would make it into the Chase would change what we would see on the track. Basically, if a driver wins a race during the first 26 races on the schedule he will all but automatically move into the championship round of 10 races with a chance to win the title.
There is a possibility that if a driver won a race leading up to the Chase he might be left out of the field, but that is only if there are more than 16 winners and recent seasons have not produced that many race winners. If there are less than 16 winners, the remaining spots will be filled according to points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., after his season opening win in the Daytona 500, showed the sport what the racing would look like at Phoenix when he and his crew chief Steve Letarte decided to roll the dice and go for another win instead of trying to play it safe and settle for a good finish. The two had made their mind up late in the race that they were going to stay out and try to run down eventual race winner Kevin Harvick even though they were very close of fuel.
It turned out that there were enough caution laps during the later stages on Sunday for Earnhardt to finish the race in second, but in the process he showed that if you already have that winner’s decal over your door, points mean very little and it is going to be more about collecting another win than making sure that you record a good finish.
The advantage of being a winner doesn’t end with having the luxury of racing for the win in the closing laps. Instead of worrying about his team’s position in the points each week, a winning crew chief can actually start to experiment with his setups and tweak on his aero package. He can also schedule his testing to help him once in the Chase instead of using a valuable test date just to help him get in the Chase.
Winning will make a driver’s year, but not every driver will win a race and that is why there will still be a strong interest in following the points each week as recent history shows that part of the Chase field will make it because of their position in the points. Those drivers that are still looking for a win as the schedule moves into the summer months will have to make sure they protect their positions in the points each week.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter how a driver makes it into the Chase as long as he is one of the 16 drivers that will have the opportunity to run for the title, but a winner does get three bonus points for each of his wins to begin the Chase.
Pole qualifying on Friday at Phoenix was the first time that the series used the new knockout qualifying procedures that will now be used at every race for the rest of the season. Every driver took to the track to try and produce that one fast lap that would move him into the final round of qualifying with the chance to sit on the pole. The new qualifying format brought with it a wide variety of strategies with most of them centering on trying to cool down the car in order to post one fast lap. Teams are not allowed to cool down their cars on pit road with fans during qualifying, so to accomplish the cooling most teams either turned some very slow laps, started cutting their engines off or did a combination of both. Some drivers and crew chiefs asked NASCAR afterward if they would consider letting them use fans in the future while others did not want the use of a fan as they considered what you did on the track during qualifying was just part of the weekend strategy and that every team would eventually adjust to the new qualifying procedures.
Event: Kobalt Tools 400
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5 mile oval, 200 banking in the turns)
Date: March 9, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Matt Kenseth