When NASCAR tweaked the Chase for Sprint Cup Championship, expanding the field from 12 to 16 drivers and whittling it to a final four in a phased elimination process, a driver was a virtual lock for the Chase if he won during the 26-race regular season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first to reap the benefit of joining the winners’ club at the Daytona 500.
With the pressure of making the Chase lifted, Earnhardt was allowed to take certain liberties with his race strategy. At Las Vegas two weeks ago, Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief, made a bold call to keep his driver out on the track during a last pit stop and forgo one last splash of gas to take the lead. It was a roll of the dice that wound up backfiring when Earnhardt ran out of fuel and ushered Brad Keselowski into Victory Lane as the third different winner of the Sprint Cup season, following Kevin Harvick’s victory at Phoenix.
Last week, in a rain-delayed race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford, became the fourth different winner when he captured the checkered flag in the Food City 500.
Edwards’s 22d Sprint Cup victory vaulted him into the Chase.
“I guess I’m part of a group of guys [who] can go have some fun and focus on the final 10 races to get to this championship,’’ said Edwards. “I’ve been a little bit jealous of those guys who have wins this early in the season. I was thinking, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be able to come to the racetrack like this and have all that pressure off of you. So now we’ll get to go have some fun. I’m really excited about the next 22 races. That’ll be a blast.’’
No time to panic
It seems a good bet that Sunday’s race in Fontana, Calif., will feature a fifth different winner, given how the season has gone.
And six-time and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson has no issue with that.
But is it time to start getting antsy about getting his first win?
“It’s not even close to time yet,’’ said Johnson, a five-time winner at Auto Club Speedway. “When you look at the stats and you have 16 different winners in a year, it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I still think that points are every bit as important as they have been until you get to Homestead. Even when you get into the Chase itself, the top guy in points will advance in pretty much every scenario, even the final one at Homestead. So points are still the focus in what I’m looking at.
“We have been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mind-set. I am not going to chase home runs. I’m looking at a smooth and consistent 26 races, and when we get a look at a home run we are going to swing for it. But we are not stepping up to the plate every time trying to hit it out.’’
Far from his mind
Denny Hamlin’s 2013 campaign went off the rails when he suffered fractured vertebrae when he hit a cement retaining wall last year at Auto Club Speedway. Sunday’s race will mark Hamlin’s return to the track, but he didn’t seem apprehensive during Friday’s practice session.
“I think the only time I thought about the wreck was the first corner in Turn 3, the first lap of practice, where you kind of think about what happened,” Hamlin said. “But literally, you’re running such speeds here, you’re on edge so much, that the next time I came around it was an afterthought, and I haven’t thought of it since.
“It’s definitely a track where we come here and it’s looking at the schedule early — this is a track where we really want to perform well. I’ve taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win and obviously be competitive come Sunday.’’
Already at full speed
The Penske IndyCar Series team wrapped up an impressive spring training session at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., in advance of next weekend’s 2014 opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. Will Power, the three-time series road course champion, set the pace each of the two days, touring the 2.3-mile course in 1 minute, 07.0608 seconds. Power’s stablemates, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, who are making a return to open-wheel racing, were also quick during the test. Castroneves clocked the sixth-fastest lap (1:07.4004), and Montoya was ninth-fastest (1:07.4764).
“Coming back to Barber, hopefully we found a happy place,’’ said Power, a two-time winner at the road circuit. “Obviously, the temperature will be a lot different, and I think that brings out imbalances in the car. It was so cold [during the test] and there was so much grip I think it was hard to get good reads on changes. We’ll see where we go and head to St. Pete. It’s going to be really tight this year.’’
Perfect time for it
Eddie MacDonald, 33, of Rowley snapped a 53-race winless streak by winning a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event at Bristol Motor Speedway March 15, taking the lead of the PittLite 125 during a green-white-checkered finish to hold off runner-up Gray Gaulding and third-place finisher Ben Rhodes.
“We had a really great car right from the drop of the green,’’ said MacDonald, driver of the No. 71 Chevrolet, who rallied from his 13th starting position to record the seventh victory of his career and first since a September 2009 triumph at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“It was a little tight at the beginning,’’ MacDonald said of his car, “but at the end it was perfect.’’