|Earnhardt rolled the dice Sunday...|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., rolled the dice and lost Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, but the fans came away a big winner.
Prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, NASCAR announced revisions to its Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format that essentially guaranteed regular-season race winners a spot in the championship playoffs. The intent of the change was to motivate drivers to race for the win at virtually all costs, ending the more conservative “points racing” that fans overwhelmingly say they dislike.
With three races complete on the season, the sanctioning body’s new “Win and You’re In” system appears to be paying big dividends.
Following a third-place finish in last month’s season-opening Daytona 500, former series champion Brad Keselowski reacted immediately to the suggestion by reporters that he had enjoyed a good points day.
“There is no good points day, as far as I’m concerned,” said Keselowski. “Points days don’t mean anything anymore. What matters is a win.”
That from a man who had just driven from 33rd on the starting grid to a podium finish, and who – just a few short months ago – would almost certainly have been overjoyed with his success.
|...sending Keselowski to Victory Lane|
Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt once proved again how much things have changed in just a few short weeks. Leading in the final laps of the Kobalt Tools 400 but lacking sufficient fuel to go the distance, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte faced a critical strategic decision. In years past, the championship leader would almost certainly have surrendered the top spot in the running order to duck onto pit road for the splash of fuel necessary to secure a nice, safe sixth- to 10th-place finish, keeping himself solidly in the championship picture for at least another week.
Sunday, however, nobody cared about safe and secure.
In a town that knows a good bit about bucking the odds, Earnhardt let it ride Sunday. In an effort to secure his second victory of the season, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver pushed all-in, remaining on the race track, hoping for a miracle and doing everything he could to keep a fast-closing Keselowski in his rear-view mirror. It was a gutsy, surprising ploy, a testosterone-rich maneuver that brought the fans to their feet and provided the most spellbinding finish of the 2014 season to date.
Earnhardt’s Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet sputtered dry on the backstretch of the final lap, rolling the NASCAR equivalent of snake eyes and handing the victory to Keselowski. But despite his heartbreaking loss, Earnhardt’s “damn the torpedoes” strategy was indicative of the sea change that has taken place in the mentality of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.
Under NASCAR’s new point system, a good point day has gone from raison-d’etre to not nearly good enough. In this new era of Sprint Cup Series racing, champs go for the checkered flag while chumps play it safe. There’s no more running half-throttle to save a pint of fuel, no more tip-toeing through the final 20 laps in search of a halfhearted, lukewarm finish.
Fans want to see drivers take chances, spinning the roulette wheel in search of the only thing that really matters in racing; the checkered flag. They got all that – and more – Sunday in Las Vegas.
Let’s hope it continues.