DRENCHED IN SWEAT after a dogfight of a race at Michigan on Aug. 19, Ryan Newman was visibly bummed. Sure, he placed eighth -- his eighth top-10 of the season -- but this year, with the Cup's new points system, top-10s are no longer good enough. Newman needed a win. After wrapping up a TV interview, he grabbed the reporter's hand and said with a grin, "You know what you love about this Chase deal? You haven't had to ask anyone about points all year. And none of us are talking about points either, are we?"
It's true. In 2012, the long-despised NASCAR tradition of "points racing" has been a nontopic, even as the 10-race, 12-car postseason Chase draws closer.
In 2011, NASCAR simplified its scale, awarding one point per finishing position but also giving the race winner a big four-point advantage over the second-place finisher. The 10 drivers who make the Chase field after Richmond on Sept. 8 will be reseeded based on regular-season wins, and the two wild-card spots will be awarded to the drivers outside the top 10 with the most victories. "It's funny to me when we're asked if we're racing harder now," says wild-card hopeful Carl Edwards. "I can't race any harder than I already am. But we're definitely not as satisfied with a good fifth-place run now."
That means drivers and crew chiefs are swinging for the fences more often, whether it's an aggressive chassis setup or an unorthodox decision on Pit Road. "We've been in that mode for a couple of months now," says Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch, who has been stuck in a five-car wild-card battle all summer. "I might take two tires on the final pit stop when I wouldn't have before. Old tires might make us finish sixth. So what? It also might get us off Pit Road first, and we win the race."
Another factor helping NASCAR's "Just win, baby" promise is the top 10 drivers' unprecedented breakaway from the pack this season. The teams atop the standings aren't worried about those in the wild card and vice versa. They're all just worried about winning as many races as possible to put themselves in the best position.
And everyone is plenty happy about not having to hear postrace math lessons in the paddock. "My family got into short-track racing decades ago to win races, not talk about points," says Brad Keselowski, who's been among the series' top winners all season. "This is how it should be."