KEVIN HARVICK LEANED against his Chevy, elated but whipped. He'd just won a door-to-door battle with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at rugged Darlington Raceway, becoming the first driver to notch two victories eight races into this season. Showing off fingers creased from gripping the wheel so tight, he smiled: "Everyone wants us to fight harder for wins, right?"
Despite being 22nd in points, Harvick was atop the Sprint Cup standings heading to Richmond on April 26, which was the unapologetic goal of NASCAR chairman Brian France when he unveiled the new Chase format in January. Tired of hearing guys brag about "a good points day," the sanctioning body devised a win-and-you're-in system to fill the postseason field, which expands from 12 to 16. Initially, drivers said their styles would hardly change -- that they raced all out, all the time anyway. But as the series churns into May, they're willing to confess otherwise.
"There's a shift in aggressiveness," says Earnhardt, who started with three consecutive top-twos, including a win at Daytona. "Guys aren't being stupid, but they're taking big swings, especially on late restarts. And pit strategy has definitely changed."
Take Earnhardt's teammate Jeff Gordon. On March 23 at the Auto Club Speedway, a race plagued by tire issues, Gordon went conservative and pitted late for four tires, surrendering the lead and finishing 13th. At Texas two weeks later, he rolled the dice on only two new tires and nearly pulled off the upset -- in a car that Gordon says was "skating around at 200 mph." While second did give him his first points lead since 2009, Gordon's zero wins left him at No. 8 in the standings.
"You think it's crazy now?" says the four-time champ. "If we hit August and there's still a bunch of us looking for that first win and a spot? Oh man, the tracks might not be wide enough to hold us all in."
After 26 races, the top 16 drivers in wins make the Chase. Ties are broken by points, even among winless drivers if there aren't 16 winners.The points leader is in the Chase and, if winless, knocks out the 16th driver. Four drivers are eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races. In the finale, the top finisher among the four drivers wins the Cup.