When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series changed qualifying to knockout format and the 10-race playoffs shifted to include eliminations, the powers that be expected teams would survey the new format and adjust. Drivers and teams are no doubt figuring their win or lack of a win into their racing strategy already.
More tactical maneuvering will take place as the season unfolds, especially when the new playoff scenario is active. Often in the past, Tony Stewart mentioned that the first five NSCS races really didn't mean much to the outcome at the finale. That thought no doubt changed with the new rules.
What hasn’t changed much yet, though, is the makeup of the top-10 performers. Hendrick Motorsports with Chevrolet has three drivers in the top five and Ford has two. Toyota is lagging some, but it still has two drivers in the top 10. Wins mean more now, but early in the season, teams don’t have a solid reason to consider panic mode.
So as the NSCS rolls out to California for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway March 23, drivers and teams will be eager to collect data and, of course, a treasured win.
Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. surely have a take on Fontana, and they shared it with fans before the green flag.
Keselowski is pleased with his team’s fast start.
“The new Chase format dictates that we have to win and we feel better having checked that box early in the season,” he said. “The points lead shows that we have been consistent and it is always enjoyable to be on top.”
Keselowski also got specific about the track.
“Tracks take on personality with age, which means that a driver has to be cognizant of how they manage tires,” he said. “On top of the well-aged racing surface, Auto Club Speedway is wide too, which offers a lot of lane choices to find the balance and speed.”
Edwards is jubilant over his recent win at Bristol and points out the significance of winning now.
“We are going to Auto Club Speedway which is one of my favorite race tracks,” he said. “We are just coming off a win in Bristol which is a huge, huge weight off our shoulders.”
Edwards also shared some of the changes in strategy once a win is secured.
“We know that we are virtually locked into the Chase,” he said. “We can go to all of these race tracks, starting with Auto Club Speedway, and go for wins and have some fun with a lot less pressure.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, has reservations about Fontana, as he sustained a back injury there last year.
“We were leading the race on the last lap last year, and never made it to the finish,” Hamlin said. “The accident happened and I missed a few races, but I think I’m a better driver because of it and a better person because of it.
He seems eager to give his season new meaning. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel 2 in Daytona and looks to add a win that works for Homestead.
“Being forced out of the car with the injury really gave me some perspective,” he said.
Kenseth had a stellar year in 2013 and would like to duplicate the number of wins, no doubt. He got off a good start, winning the Budweiser Duel 1 in Daytona, though the win didn't count for points.
“After this weekend, you kind of get an idea where you are and where you need to improve,” Kenseth said. “The track is really worn out so there’s a lot of fall-off on the tires.”
Kenseth gave fans an idea what it takes to do well at Auto Club Speedway.
"It’s definitely one that you can change your line, change your approach, find grip, lose grip, find speed and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Certainly there’s a lot of options when you go there of where you can run.”
Stenhouse was second to Edwards at Bristol and is eager to do better.
“I really enjoy racing at Auto Club,” he said. “The tires wear quickly so you slide around and can run anywhere on the track. We are coming off our career best finish so we will carry that momentum into this weekend and hopefully get another strong finish.”
Race fans may not be able to detect some of the subtle differences that wins create for drivers and team, but in Fontana, look for 2014 winners Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Keselowski and Edwards to make bolder moves.
Fans can catch track action on Fox at 3 p.m. Sunday.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.