You don’t often hear “nerves” and “worried” from one of the world’s most talented race car drivers, particularly from the hi-test and high testosterone NASCAR world, particularly from NASCAR’s most popular driver.
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped both words Tuesday at Homestead-Miami Speedway when discussing the differences wrought by the new Chase for the Cup format in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Carl Edwards, Hendrick Motorsports’ Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski spent Tuesday testing on the track that will once again host the final, deciding race in the Sprint Cup season.
“It definitely seems like the intensity’s been [increased] this year,” Earnhardt said. “With the way the Chase is, every race is so critical. You’ve got to try to get a top five or win in every event. Talking to other drivers, there’s a sense of anxiety and nerves over trying to get into the next round that we didn’t have before. I think that shows up in what you see on the race track. Those nerves and anxiety of trying to get through to the next round and doing whatever you can as a team to take a spot that’s going to move you forward. It’s really got guys scratching their heads and curious and worried before races.
“There’s guys who can go out there and perform well under those circumstances and there are guys who can spaz out and have a terrible day and sort of spiral out of control.’’
Though Earnhardt didn’t name any names, perhaps an example of what he’s talking about happened between Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick at Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.
An admitted mistake by Kenseth ended up spinning him and Harvick mid-race with Harvick losing an argument with the wall. Kennseth took the blame, while a furious Harvick said, “Yeah, he won’t win this championship. If we won’t, he won’t.”
After on-track incidents during the Bank of America 500, the usually unflappable Kenseth chased Keselowski on foot and the two had to be separated.
For the first 10 years of the Chase format, drivers raced all season to qualify for the Chase segment via points. Then, those drivers tried to outpoint each other in the Chase segment.
This year, the Chase contains three-race tiers with drivers making the next tier or being dropped off, sort of like NASCAR’s version of Survivor. The 16 drivers that started the Chase get whittled down to 12, then eight. Last week’s race at Martinsville started the next segment. After races in Texas and at Phoenix, four drivers will be eliminated, leaving only four drivers alive for the season finale at Homestead on Nov.16. The highest finisher in the Ford EcoBoost 400 wins the championship.
Each three-race round, a driver can qualify for the next round by winning a race. After the winners, points in that round’s three races decide the remaining advancers. If a non-Chase driver wins a race, as Earnhardt did at Martinsville after being eliminated the previous round, it leaves open more spots to be gained by points. Each round, the remaining drivers begin with the same number of points.
“Each round offers something different because the tracks are different,” said Gordon, this round’s points leader after Martinsville. “Then, you reset [the points]. When you reset like that, the intensity starts all over again. That used to be the case when the Chase started and then as you run along there, you separate yourself from the majority of the competition and then it starts dwindling down to two or three or four as you get closer to Homestead.”
Logano, who once did a guest star turn on Disney Channel’s Lab Rats, said, “The pressure’s up and the intensity is higher for that reason because there are still so many guys who can win this thing. Obviously, there are eight cars that can still win. At this point last year, there weren’t eight cars who could still win the championship.”
Keselowski pulled off the Chase’s most dramatic win thus far, taking the Geico 500 at Talladega when only a checkered flag at NASCAR’s most capricious track would’ve kept him alive.
“This format lends itself to inconsistency,” Keselowski said. “It seems like you can either be very inconsistent and win, have a bad finish, have a bad finish, win or be very consistent and have thirds and fifth-place finishes. All of that can carry you into the last round. But like Joey said, we’re all entering the last round [at Homestead] thinking that you’re going to have to come here and win the race.
“If that’s the case, I don’t really want to be consistent. I want to be the guy who can get hot in a given week and own a race, so to speak.”