Though you may not know it listening to the television broadcasts, there are more than 12 drivers racing for the checkered flag in the season's final NASCAR races. Thirty-one more drivers, to be exact.
The Chase for the Championship has been a shot in the arm for NASCAR, no doubt. The equivalent of a competition caution on the race track, the Chase has brought drivers that were about to lap the field back within striking distance, and that has brought unprecedented levels of excitement not just to the final Chase races, but to the last two or three leading up to the Chase.
But then there is the flip side.
Not too long ago, when championships were, more often than not, one driver's title to lose as the leaves started changing color, the races on the track were treated the same as they were in the spring. That is to say, the race for the checkered flag was the main soap opera taking place that afternoon. Now, viewers know who is leading the Chase and by how many points up to the second. The race going on at the track? Almost an afterthought sometimes.
That leaves 31 drivers who weren't fortunate enough to make the Chase with a conundrum. What are they out there turning laps for if they can't compete for the championship? There are actually several reasons, and they vary from team to team.
"Well for us personally, we shoot for wins," said Casey Mears, who sits 15th in the points heading into Charlotte. "We always want to win races, and that goal hasn't changed at all. We've earned four top 10s in the last four races, so the momentum is there, and that is really important to us, too. I can't speak for the other teams, but we are, of course, looking at next season and starting to focus on building towards that."
Not all drivers have the comfort zone that Mears has, though. Michael Waltrip, who won the pole at Talladega, is one example. Waltrip's struggles in his first season with Toyota have been well chronicled. Currently 48th in the standings, he has but two things left to fight for ... a race victory and a top 35 spot for his team.
Finishing in the top 35 is crucial because those are the teams that get provisionals through the first five races next year. No one knows this better than Waltrip, who with a new team this season did not get those provisionals. As a result, he missed some races and got caught in a vicious cycle. He's not going to make the top 35, but he wants to get as close as possible.
"Obviously we want to win a race, but realistically, the last six races are all about next year," Waltrip said. "We've been able to put a check in the box for the restrictor-plate COT for Daytona. We have something there that is competitive, and we can really race with. So Talladega was important. Everywhere we go for the remainder of the year, we are just going to go out there and prove that we cannot only qualify for races, but be competitive. We have as much to race for as anybody out there."
Then there are the drivers like Jacques Villeneuve, who raced at Talladega simply to foreshadow a full schedule that begins in Daytona next season. A pretty fair driver named Jeff Gordon once started his first race at Atlanta in the final race of the season.
Teammate issues also need to be considered. While Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battle it out at the top of the Chase standings, other teammates such as Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin must rely on each other should one of them be able to crack the Hendrick Motorsports stranglehold at the top.
The final races are also a perfect opportunity to experiment. Perhaps not so much this season because of the Car of Tomorrow, but still some things will be tried by teams looking for an edge next year. Setups, engine packages, gear ratio combinations, even crew members. Think of a baseball team that is out of the playoff chase that brings up young players in September. Same concept.
But winning a race is still the first, second and third emphasis for most teams.
"We may try a few different setups and challenge the car a little more, but we don't change our focus," Mears said. "Our focus is always on winning, so we're not going to do anything to jeopardize that. We're trying to build momentum and gain consistency in the end of the season here, and so far that's worked for us. Now if it's taking a chance to win the race, like we did with the fuel mileage at Lowe's Motor Speedway earlier this year, we'll do that if it makes sense. Our goal now is just to win races and we've got a few more chances to do that."
The goal now for those not in the Chase, and even for some teams in the Chase but already well back in the points, is to hit the ground running next year. It's easier to do that if they're running well at the end of this one.