<
>

Winning is the only thing now

LOUDON, N.H. -- The wild part of the new wild-card format is going to reveal itself soon.

Entering Sunday's Sprint Cup event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, eight races remain before the Chase. At some point soon, desperate measures will come into play.

For the first time, the 11th and 12th spot in the playoff are decided based on wins for drivers ranked in the top 20. If a driver knows he can't make the top 10, but might make the playoff with a victory, going for broke becomes a reasonable plan.

"I think the wild-card system has created a tremendous amount of buzz in the air," said Kevin Harvick, third in the standings and safely inside the Chase cutoff with three victories. "As it gets closer and closer [to the Chase], the intensity starts to ratchet up a notch every week.

"People who aren't in the top-10 or haven't won races know they need to make something happen. You at least have an outside chance to make that happen with winning a race. It'll be fun to watch."

Drivers will tell you they always try to win in every race.

"If I could win a race, I'd win a race," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "You go out every week; you show up to run as well as you can. That is all we do every week."

That's true, but when a driver says he always tries to win, it's a bit misleading. Earnhardt could use a victory. He's winless and has dropped from third to eighth in the past three races.

"We've got good cars," Earnhardt said. "We've got a really good team. We should be running better than we have the last couple of weeks and we know it. We're just going to try and work really hard to get back where we were earlier in the season. It shouldn't be that difficult."

The difficulty and the pressure will mount as the Chase approaches if a team needs a win to get in. How much of a risk will a driver and his team be willing to take to try to win?

Will they gamble on fuel? Will they stay on the track when the other leaders pit under caution late in a race? Will the driver attempt a dangerous pass up against the wall to try to get to the front? Will he use the old "chrome horn" to push the car in front of him out of the way?

Each of these strategies might result in a victory. They also might cause a crash or a poor finish. So teams have to weigh the risk versus the reward.

If a driver is inside the top 10, points racing might be the best option -- playing it safe and having a good finish to earn as many points as possible.

If a driver is outside the top 10, taking a few risks to try to win becomes the best option as the races wind down before the Chase.

The toughest decisions will come for the drivers on the bubble, barely inside or barely outside of 10th.

"We're very vulnerable," said Ryan Newman, who is winless and ninth in the standings, starting on the pole Sunday. "The single-race winners this year will change the dynamic of the points.

"Last year we were that one-race win team that would have made it with this year's type of points system. So yeah, we want to win."

David Ragan, who won at Daytona two weeks ago, is the only driver outside the top 10 that would make the Chase right now based on wins. He's 15th in the standings, but the only winner outside the top 10 who ranks in the top 20.

Tony Stewart It's just business as usual for us. We'll try to get as many points as we can and hope we can get in on our merit of points and not have to rely on the wild card.

-- Tony Stewart

However, Brad Keselowski has a win and he's 21st in the standings. If he moves into the top 20 (he's only three points behind 20th-place Joey Logano) it would knock Tony Stewart out of the Chase as it stands now.

Stewart is 11th and winless, but he's only two points behind Denny Hamlin in 10th.

As you can see, this is going to get complicated.

"It's just business as usual for us," said Stewart, who joins teammate Newman on the front row Sunday. "We'll try to get as many points as we can and hope we can get in on our merit of points and not have to rely on the wild card."

That's the plan for now, but it will change if he's outside looking in with two races to go before the Chase begins.

And then there's the other end of the spectrum: guys who know they're in and can do whatever they want over the next two months.

"For us, it's about getting wins," said Carl Edwards, who is second in the points with one victory. "It's about going out here and being aggressive and getting those bonus points going into the Chase and having a little bit of fun.

"It is nice to not be looking backwards over our shoulders right now, but to be looking forward. That's fun."

Teams safely in the top 10 also can experiment on setups to try to find an advantage before the playoff starts.

"There are a lot of things we are working on now that we hope to apply then," Edwards said. "Once the Chase comes, it's really difficult to take something new and unproven to the race track. Now is the time to be working on all that stuff, and we are working on it pretty hard."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.