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IN THE REARVIEW: Phoenix

March 3rd, 2014 12:39 pm by Dave Ongie

IN THE REARVIEW: Phoenix

Jimmie Johnson (48), Dale Earnhardt, Jr., back left, and Kevin Harvick head into the first turn during Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo)

Quick — where does your favorite NASCAR driver rank in the Sprint Cup points standings?

This is probably the first time points have crossed your mind this season, isn't it?

I know I hadn’t given the first thought to the Sprint Cup points standings until this morning when Tom Taylor mentioned during our weekly chat on his radio show, “Good Morning Tri-Cities” (check us out on 870 AM or 100.7 FM every Monday about 9:10 a.m.) that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the points leader. You should have seen the look of sheer terror on my face as I braced for a question about points that luckily never came.

No, points were the furthest thing from my mind after watching Kevin Harvick charge to victory in Phoenix on Sunday, taking the fastest car in the field to the front of the pack and keeping it there through a string of late-race restarts. Points also seemed to be the last thing on the minds of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon as they dug deep in search of a win, which virtually assures a driver of a berth in the Chase under NASCAR’s new playoff system.

While nobody had anything for Harvick, all the drivers in the top five drove as if they were chasing a trophy instead of chasing points, and with apologies to all you racing purists out there, that is just about the best thing that could happen to NASCAR. Fans who paid their hard-earned money to go watch the race in Phoenix, and even those who invested an afternoon on the couch at home, showed up and tuned in to see who won the race.

Most race fans I talk to have always been that way, and that has created a disconnect in NASCAR between the competitors and the fans over the years. Fans have always been concerned with who wins the weekly battles while drivers, owners and race teams have been wrapped up in winning the season-long war, so to speak.

With the exception of the Daytona 500, race wins in the past were simply the cherry on top of the sundae for race teams. The ultimate goal was to show up and get the most points possible without taking any unnecessary risks. But with a berth in the Chase potentially on the line every week, fans and drivers now seem to be back on the same page.

When you talk to most drivers, they’ll tell you they all want to win every week, and I have no reason to doubt that. While they play mild-mannered pitchmen on television for their sponsors, drivers don’t last long in the Cup series unless they have a killer instinct once they climb into their race cars.

If the Phoenix race is any indication, it’s becoming clear that NASCAR’s problem with big-picture racing in recent years can’t be pinned on the drivers. Instead, the system they were racing under is to blame.

Under the old playoff format, discretion was often the better part of valor in the closing laps. We’ve seen that all too often at Bristol Motor Speedway in recent years as guys with a chance to rough up the leader settle for second. Second-place points were great, and nobody seemed to want to risk wrecking both cars. Besides, racing clean and keeping the big picture in mind might earn the runner-up a similar break at a race down the road.

Now it’s win and you’re in, and that appears to be just the game-changer NASCAR needed. As the weeks wear on and the opportunities to score a win grow fewer, the competition will only heat up. With 16 Chase spots up for grabs, there certainly will be a few drivers who make the playoffs by virtue of points, but nobody will want to roll the dice on that proposition with no clear picture of how many drivers will ultimately win races between now and the Chase opener.

Besides, once you get into the playoffs, drivers who win Chase races will advance to the next round automatically. With the focus of the sport moving away from chasing points and centering around winning races, the mentality will certainly change at every race shop.

Drivers like Earnhardt and Harvick are already in, so they’re free to race each week like they’ve got nothing to lose. That's a good thing. Drivers who are way back in the points come summer will start swinging for the fences in order to score that one win that gets them into the Chase. Wild setups, experimental engines and aggressive driving will become the norm as desperation sets in.

There is still work to be done, but from the perspective of the race fan, it’s hard to argue that NASCAR isn’t better off than it was a year ago thanks to the new Chase format.

If the day ever comes when folks in NASCAR only think of points as something that can be redeemed for airline miles, the mission to add excitement back into stock car racing will have been accomplished as far as I'm concerned.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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