Five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races are over. Once considered a slow start for the NSCS season, the first five events are now more like a launching pad for winners. Victory Lane has always been treasured, but it means more in the long season because getting in the Chase playoffs now is solidly based on wins.
NASCAR’s sweeping changes in 2014 for the Chase, with elimination emphasis adding four spots to make 16 contenders instead of 12, may be having an early effect.
Tony Stewart used to say the first five NSCS races don’t mean much in the long run. On Sunday after race five, the Auto Club 400, he was beaming like a rookie talking about coming in fifth.
Only four points separate the top four drivers. Over the past 10 NSCS seasons, an average of about 12 drivers have won all the races. Obviously that means some win multiple times.
Five different drivers have won five races so far. It’s likely someone will win twice soon, but racing strategy has changed. The count in victory lanes will tell.
In case some doubt that NASCAR knew its math, only once in 10 years of Chase playoffs has there been 15 different winners and never 16—yet.
Kevin Harvick is in 25th place with a win already, knowing he is virtually locked in the Chase.
Chase eliminations will abruptly halt contender teams along the way to the championship. A group of three-race hurdles for the last nine races will take a toll. It’s designed that way.
Drivers and teams don’t seem to thinking about that now. Presently, the focus in NASCAR is on wins even more than ever, and that’s an accomplishment.
NASCAR drivers are competitive about almost everything, not just the laps on racetracks.
Right now, top drivers are concerned about the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
Edwards has moved up to the top spot.
“We are going to Martinsville as point leader, which is huge,” Edwards said. “That place is fun when the car is good. It’s a crazy racetrack. Fans fill it. They know it’s a wild race. The last restart is always insane. The way the season is going, anything can happen.”
Earnhardt has the first NSCS win this season, and from second place, he will likely make his journey to the Chase more of an adventure.
“Every seat at Martinsville is the best seat in the house,” Earnhardt said. “A great place to watch a race. I used to go there when I was a kid. It was only an hour and a half up the road. We never missed that race, been going there forever. I love racing there.”
Gordon hasn’t had a win yet this season but he is third in points. His first win might come soon. He shared his thoughts on driving Martinsville.
“You have to be aggressive, but patient,” Gordon said. “Martinsville has fairly long straightaways–at least for a half-mile track–with extremely flat, tight corners. You want to ‘roll’ into the corners, but it’s easy to overdrive the entry, use too much brake.”
Keselowski has one of the five wins of the season and probably wanted the new system last year where his victory lane visit would have made him a contender. He shared his perspective.
“I like going to Martinsville,” Keselowski said. “The track has heritage and it is one of those places that helped to build NASCAR. As a guy that enjoys history I can’t help but reflect on the great history that Martinsville brings—the roots of our sport.”
Kenseth and Gordon haven’t won yet, but they are in the top five standings with good performances. Both may join the contender group soon. Kenseth, like Gordon, seems to be focused on the next race.
“The biggest challenge for Martinsville, probably more than all tracks we go, is the new qualifying procedure,” Kenseth said. “The challenge is not getting in someone else’s way and not having someone else in your way. That qualifying session is a big deal.”
It will be interesting to see if the Martinsville race will produce a sixth winner who hasn't yet won a NASCAR race. It will also be worth following the likelihood of 16 or more different drivers winning all the NASCAR races in season 2014.
Only with the checkered flag at Homestead in November will fans all know the big-end number—the final toll of winners in NASCAR 2014.
That number will tell a story.
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.