When NASCAR introduced the new point system during the off-season, one of the suggested results would be less ‘points racing' throughout the year. Although the sanctioning body hoped to create a balance between winning and consistency, the Chase wild card placed an added emphasis on winning.
However, as the year has gone on, it appears drivers and teams are continuing to hold back the reigns in order to salvage a solid points day. Judging by some comments after Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, maintaining a solid place in the standings is becoming more and more important as the Chase approaches.
Take third-place finisher Denny Hamlin, for example. Going into New Hampshire 10th in the standings, Hamlin was forced to weigh the decision of racing for the win and backing off to conserve fuel at the end of Sunday's race. Looking at the big picture, Hamlin played it conservatively and settled for third.
"The crew chief is screaming that we got to back off," Hamlin said. "At that point you have to think about the risk versus reward. If we go out there and try to win the race, we get about 10 more points than what we get if we coast and get a third‑place finish, or if we go for it and miss, run out of fuel, we end up with minus 20, 30 points.
"It's just risk‑versus‑reward racing with these fuel mileage things. As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race."
So much for racing for the win.
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., points racing has been a bit of a necessity as of late. After spending eight weeks in the top 5 in the standings, Earnhardt Jr. hit a string of bad races and has fallen to ninth in points. As a result, Earnhardt Jr. seemed almost relieved to finish 15th Sunday in New Hampshire.
"Fifteenth ain't awesome, but certainly better than what we've been putting on points-wise," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said "I've just got to stay calm and take what the heck I can get instead of trying to make something happen and ruining the day like I did last week (at Kentucky)."
Yet just as some drivers are playing it safe and racing for a solid points day, there are those that continue to gamble. With only seven races left before the 12-driver Chase field is set, teams on the outside looking in will be racing to win their way into the wild card spots in the Chase.
"You just have to do what you have to do and I think that's what this system creates," Kevin Harvick said. "As (the Chase) gets closer and closer and you realize you're not going to be in the top-10 or you need to get in the top-20 whatever the case may be the intensity starts to ratchet up a notch every week and I think the wild card system has created a tremendous amount of buzz in the air and the 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's been fun to watch."
It certainly has been fun to watch thus far, and will only get more interesting as the Chase approaches.