As you may recall, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been one of the most conservative groups in NASCAR this year. In situations which called for a decision between points racing and trying something risky for a win, Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte have gone for the sure points every time.
But with eight races to go until the Chase and with Earnhardt Jr. second in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, that's about to change.
"We've been the team that's kind of played it really careful, you know?" Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at New Hampshire. "... I know it's just a few weeks later, but we feel better about our position to make the Chase. If we're in that position again, we can gamble. I like that, and hopefully we can win some more races doing that."
Earnhardt Jr. most notably played it safe at Pocono, where he emphatically told Letarte not to run him out of gas when it looked like the day was turning into a fuel-mileage race. Instead of having a shot at the win, he finished eighth.
At the time, Earnhardt Jr. said he simply didn't feel secure enough in the Chase to take risks. Wins were important, he said, but making the playoffs was even more so.
But sitting second in the point standings and with a whopping 110-point cushion inside the top 10, Earnhardt Jr. said his team is finally ready to chance a mediocre finish in the name of victory.
"We can now," he said. "... We're not going to gamble foolishly, but we can go the opposite direction we went at Pocono."
While Earnhardt Jr. has one win – and thus wouldn't start the Chase in last place as of today – he'd prefer to have more bonus points heading into the final 10 races. In addition, he said the No. 88 team has more to learn in the next eight weeks.
"We just want to keep preparing for the Chase," he said. "We're not ready for the Chase. We want to learn more, know more, feel more prepared. We'll do everything we can in the next couple months to be ready."
This has been Earnhardt Jr.'s best and most consistent season ever, and he's even avoided his typical summer letdown so far. One reason is when he arrives at the track, the car is already competitive and the team doesn't have to spend time dialing it in – unlike in years past.
"I've been in the sport and had teams at times where everybody's getting it and everything's working and cars show up ready and fast, and that's happening for us," he said. "I just hope we can keep it going. These things sort of cycle around and teams come and go as far as their strengths. ... We've got a good thing going on."