LAS VEGAS — If there’s any doubt remaining that NASCAR’s new Chase format has caused a paradigm shift in the attitudes of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, listen to the three men who have won the first three races.
It wasn’t Las Vegas that made a gambler of Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the newfound freedom that now is an integral part of every victory.
Earnhardt gambled on fuel Mar. 2 in Phoenix and made it to the finish but couldn’t catch race winner Kevin Harvick.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte played an even longer shot Sunday in Las Vegas, knowing full well that they were a half-lap to a lap short on fuel. With pressure from Brad Keselowski forcing Earnhardt to use more fuel than he wanted to in the final run, the No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas on the backstretch of the last lap.
Keselowski took the checkered flag, and Earnhardt coasted across the finish line in second place.
So what? With a Daytona 500 victory in his pocket and a berth in the Chase all but guaranteed, Earnhardt can afford to gamble every single weekend if he wants to.
“Yeah, it was very exciting,” Earnhardt said. “I think the way the new format is — nothing is perfect, right? — but it definitely is showing it has tons of positives, and it’s better as far as entertainment for our sport.
“Yeah, it gives us freedom, and it’s nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today, even though we knew our odds weren’t good. We really shouldn’t have made it, and we didn’t, but we got to try because of the new system. So yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.”
And just to underline how different the attitude is from the emphasis on points racing in previous years, would Earnhardt and Letarte have made the same gamble under last year’s system?
“Absolutely not,” Earnhardt asserted. “I can say that without a doubt.”
After Sunday’s race, Keselowski can reap the corollary benefits of winning, and he’s looking forward to what he termed “stress-free days” after the race. And the way Keselowski sees it, the new format may give one driver more freedom to knock another out of the way for a win, if the “victim” already has a victory.
That thought crossed Keselowski’s mind as he was chasing Earnhardt in the closing laps.
“Today when I was thinking about it, my thought was, well, he’s already won a race so he’s got nothing to worry about,” Keselowski said. “That was kind of what I was thinking. I’d have damn near wrecked him, if I had to, with that in mind. It’s part of the deal.”
In that respect, winning is a double-edged sword. Winning gives a driver and crew chief the luxury of taking chances they ordinarily wouldn’t take, but it also puts a target on the bumper.
Why? Because drivers without a victory may have fewer qualms about dumping a driver who already has been to Victory Lane and therefore is a likely qualifier for the Chase.
As we’ve seen from the first three races of the 2014 season, that dichotomy already has produced heightened drama on the track.
Most in Sunday’s crowd at Las Vegas were standing and watching breathlessly as Earnhardt battled Keselowski in the closing laps. When Earnhardt ran out of fuel, the collective groan seemed as loud as the jet fighter flyover that accompanied the National Anthem.
Though the fuel shortage was disappointing to Earnhardt fans, the drama it produced only served to whet our appetites for what is likely to follow when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves to Bristol this weekend.