NASCAR’s new mantra: 'It is all about the win'

Justin Tooley-USA TODAY Sports

While the season may be young, NASCAR’s decision to place a greater emphasis on winning is already apparent.

It was a finish that in previous years would have left him elated.

No, it wasn't a win but Brad Keselowski had finished third; just as he did the week before in the Daytona 500. An excellent start to a season for the 2012 series champion who the following year struggled in defense of his title and had failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And that Keselowski had finished third without his crew chief Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway should have made the accomplishment even sweeter.

Yet it didn't.

"Under this system, wins are only things that count. Last year you would have said seconds and thirds are great, but this year they're not. They're so-so." -Brad Keselowski

Spurred by NASCAR CEO Brian France's edict to stress the importance of winning, the method of qualifying for the Chase changed dramatically over the offseason. Beginning this year the field would be predominantly set by those who win a race during the regular season.

The days when drivers would step out of their cars and be satisfied with a finish other than a win are now of a bygone era. Points going forward are virtually meaningless, as winning is the name of the game now. Sure, a driver could still use consistency to race their way into the playoffs, but that route offers no guarantees.

"Under this system, wins are only things that count," Keselowski said. "Last year you would have said seconds and thirds are great, but this year they're not. They're so-so."

The same feelings Keselowski conveyed were also felt by Team Penske's other driver. For the last 30 laps or so, Joey Logano hounded leader Kevin Harvick through a series of late-race restarts. Despite the effort, Logano was never able to pass Harvick and slid to fourth.

The aggressiveness exhibited by Logano was a direct byproduct of the new format. Previously, not wanting to lose precious points so early in the season, he would have been more cautious. But now where winning is paramount, this isn't an option.

"On the last two restarts I figured I might as well go for it," Logano said. "With a win being so important you might as well go for it and I tried to stuff it in there three-wide and gave up a spot by doing that, but overall it is all about the win."

Whether this mindset continues throughout the regular season is still to be determined. However, as the Chase cutoff inches closer and winning takes on even more significance, it's more than likely the intensity will only amplify.

Scenarios like the one that unfolded last August at Watkins Glen will be fewer. That was when Keselowski running second on the white flag lap elected not to contest leader Kyle Busch for fear of future retaliation. Keselowski finished second, and without a win during the regular season to fallback on missed the Chase.

"We can gamble with a better conscience."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That's not say that in hindsight the new format is better than originally thought. Questions still linger, with machinations among teammates a real possibility.

For now though, the early returns suggest limitless possibilities ahead. Already the results have been evident.

Without fear of the consequences, crew chiefs up and down pit road utilized various strategies in the closing stages Sunday. Some took two tires while others took four. And then there was Dale Earnhardt, who with a Daytona win in his back pocket knew he could gamble on fuel mileage.

The venture may not have materialized, but it did provide a blueprint of what to expect in the coming months.

"We were stretching (our fuel mileage) thin," Earnhardt said. "We would have went with the same strategy regardless of the situation. But it wouldn't have been as nerve-wracking. ... Today, if we run out, we run out, no big deal. We can gamble with a better conscience."

The avenue for the sport's smaller teams to earn Chase eligibility is also now less obstructed.

A go-for-broke roll of the dice that pays off with a trip to Victory Lane (Regan Smith at Darlington, 2011) would have punched Furniture Row Racing's Chase ticket. And at Daytona or Talladega, where the draft acts as the great equalizer and the opportunity to win magnified, a surprise victory comes with an added bonus.

"There is gonna be a team that wouldn't have made the Chase that is gonna make it because of a race win and that's a good thing to have," Ragan said last month at NASCAR's media day.

NASCAR's mantra in 2014 is clear and concise; echoing the refrain made popular by Al Davis, the patriarch of the Oakland Raiders: "Just win, baby."

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