Last year at this time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the final NASCAR race of the regular season clinging to a spot in the Chase and had to be on the defensive to maintain his position.
It was stressful and nerve-wracking.
This year, with a Chase berth already secured? Not so much.
"The best-case scenario is to be locked in a week or two early, and be able to take a little bit of a breather from the pressure you put on yourself to get as many points every week," Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "So we can just race and not worry about points, which is really fun. It definitely is a ton less stressful."
That will all change next week, though, when Earnhardt Jr. begins the Chase with perhaps the best shot he's ever had at a championship. And unlike at Richmond, he's a bit concerned he'll have trouble calming himself down.
The energy level, he said, will be "probably higher than it should be."
"You get excited over certain things and you can get overzealous in driving the car and making mistakes," he said. "So I think that a calm-thinking approach and using your head and being smart is what's best. If you've got a fast car, you've got to know how to use it and use it to your advantage."
That didn't happen in a recent race at Martinsville, when Earnhardt Jr. had to remind himself to chill out after only 100 laps.
"For whatever reason that day, I was super ramped-up and I had done 500 miles worth of damage to the car in 100 laps," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I told Steve (Letarte, crew chief), ‘Man, I need to calm down or we're not going to have a car to finish,' because it was just destroyed down both sides of it."
Being calm behind the wheel is especially important in the opening Chase race, where no driver wants to make a mistake that is going to put himself in a deep hole going forward. As Earnhardt Jr. put it: "The Chase isn't won at Chicago, but it can be lost there if you screw up."