Updated: March 10, 2014, 4:51 PM ET

Rolling The Dice

Sprint Cup: This is getting good

By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Not only is NASCAR's new championship system working -- wondrously at that -- it is the right thing to do. It has been all along.

After decades of languishing in an archaic points system that rewarded riding around, yet wondering why its audience was so deep in malaise, NASCAR has broken out of the doldrums and set sail on a gale called winning.

Winning at last is as it should have been all along: what racing is all about.

Win-you're-in has led immediately to win-or-else. Win, and you're free to try to win some more. No falling back to play it safe for points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick Smith/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. said there's no doubt he would have driven more conservatively if he didn't already have a victory this season.

"It gives us freedom, and it's nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today," Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.

What he'd done was stay out, running hard on fumes, to battle Brad Keselowski right into the final lap.

And Keselowski, with his Vegas win, now can feel the kind of freedom Earnhardt has felt since winning the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.

"Locked into the Chase!" Keselowski gushed in Victory Lane. "I don't have to hear that crap all year about not being in the Chase." He'd failed to make the playoffs last year after winning the championship in 2012.

The new system simply couldn't work better than it has thus far. NASCAR's two most outspoken drivers, beloved for their candor, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick (who won last week at Phoenix), are all but playoff-bound already.

So is Earnhardt, long NASCAR's most popular driver but now its hottest, with a win and two second-place finishes out of the gate. He won his class at Phoenix when Harvick was running away from the field into a different zip code. Then Earnhardt made Vegas a memorable show by refusing to pit for gas when he needed to, and instead dueling Keselowski.

Even after Earnhardt ran out of fuel coming off the second turn on the final lap, he had enough momentum to finish second with a sputtering engine.

Even last year, when fretting about points was foremost, would Earnhardt have stayed out to take on Keselowski for the win?

"Absolutely not," Earnhardt confirmed. "I can say that without a doubt."

Even last year, he would have, ho-hum, pitted for a splash of fuel to preserve, ho-hum, that decent finish for the maddening math's sake, for the points.

And his legions of fans would have felt deflated. Now, they're still sky-high on adrenalin.

"I think the way the new format is -- nothing is perfect, right? -- but it definitely is showing it has tons of positives," Earnhardt said, "and it's better as far as entertainment for our sport."

Keselowski preferred the fight to a cruise because, he said, "That's what you live for as a driver. Those moments when you're side by side, and you lay it all out on the racetrack and you bring back the car with the tires smoking, engine smoking, and you're worn out inside because you gave it all you had."

And from here on, drivers get to do what they live for. They, fans and casual audiences -- and journalists -- love the same thing.

Better late than never, for doing the right thing.

Big Win For Bad Brad


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