With wins at a premium, drivers outside Chase poised to take risks

Publish date:

INDIANAPOLIS -- Expect to see some desperate moves by NASCAR teams without a victory as the Race to the Chase heats up in August. In the past, if a driver were running fifth, he'd likely be content with taking the points for a top-five finish. But as Paul Menard's victory in last Sunday's Brickyard 400 showed, gambling on fuel mileage to get a victory is more important than protecting points with a "safe" finish.

Teams outside the top 10 in points have to secure at least one victory to contend for the two wild-card positions in the Chase. If the season ended today, those spots would belong to Menard and Denny Hamlin. But one-win drivers David Ragan, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith are still very much in the hunt. And anyone else who can reach Victory Lane knows their fortunes could turn for the better too.

That is why the forecast calls for some bold decisions and risky gambles during the upcoming schedule, which includes several tracks where fuel mileage always comes into play: Pocono (Aug. 7), Watkins Glen (Aug. 14) and Michigan (Aug. 21). The one stop Cup makes in August where fuel mileage is often not a concern is the short track at Bristol (Aug. 27), where "beatin' and bangin'" takes precedence.

Jeff Gordon, who has two victories and is a virtual lock for the Chase, expects to see plenty of desperation and more fuel mileage gambles than ever before.

"It's risk versus reward. Right now if you're outside the Chase or you don't think you have a shot at it, especially with the wins now, I think that definitely adds another element to it to take more risk. But if you're 10 laps short, that's not risk, that's stupidity. So that might be what you do. You go to that level of almost being stupid risky and it could pay off if the cautions come enough, if you find a way, some miraculous way, to make up that fuel mileage, then go for it.

"The further back you get in the points, the more risky you can get. But we're all pushing the limits to try to win every weekend. Everybody is. Those guys that have not won yet this year, they're doing the same thing. If you have nothing to lose, then you could do that, but I'll be curious to see how people handle it."

Gordon even expects some of those drivers to resort to contact to move another driver out of the way -- or even into the wall -- if it means getting into the Chase.

"I'm not every guy out there but if we were, we would put the fastest race car out there, and if it came down to taking a little more risk, then we would do it," Gordon said. "Would I want to spin a guy out on the last lap to get the win? Depends on who I was racing and what kind of history I had with him and what kind of position I had with him. I wouldn't do that to just anybody."

Greg Biffle is one of those drivers who knows he has to win just to get in, but thus far, his team hasn't had to make any risky decisions.

"At Loudon we were as fast as Ryan Newman, but we were 16 laps short on gas. We could have gambled but there was nothing we could do," Biffle said. "You think about it ... but running 16 laps short is not giving us a very good chance."

But what if Biffle were running fifth and three laps short on fuel. Would he go for it?

"Under that scenario everybody will go for it because the opportunity is there," Biffle said.

Carl Edwards doesn't have to worry about that scenario because he currently leads the points and has a win. But Edwards could be in the middle of a situation with other drivers who have to win or get in.

"One thing I've seen in the last year or so is these drivers can handle double-file restarts, three-wide bumping into each other and everybody does a good job of racing right up to that line, so I have a lot of confidence in the guys I'm racing with," Edwards said. "We're ready to make some gambles, too. We need to win races to get some extra bonus points, so there is some pressure on us, too."

Edwards has one win while third-place Kevin Harvick and fourth-place Kyle Busch have three apiece. Fifth-place Matt Kenseth and seventh-place Gordon have two, so if it remained that way after Richmond, Edwards would be seeded fifth. That is why he has as much reason to win as the drivers trying to get into the Chase.

Hamlin has been hovering around 10th- and 11th-place for the past month and expects to see plenty of gambling by other drivers between now and the Chase cutoff race.

"That's about really the only thing they can do different is that if they are not in contention for a win during the course of the day because their car is not fast enough, they're going to have to maybe come in and top off, lose the track position and hope that the race goes green and that we have a fuel mileage race," Hamlin said. "Really, other than that you can't change your strategy that much over what it already is."

With the way things are going, the wild card could come to down to the race at Richmond on Sept. 10. If it does, Hamlin agrees with Gordon that things could get rough.

"At Richmond, if they [winless drivers] are in position to try to get the win, you're going to see them being extra aggressive but you're not going to be able to do it from eighth to 10th place if that's where you're running. ... Obviously, if some guy's going for a win on a last lap or something and it's a guy that's fighting for a Chase spot and or wild-card position, it definitely could get physical."

Biffle also sees that as a possibility.

"If one of those guys has to win to get in, they will be as aggressive as they can. You will rough them up as much as you can to get the win."

What's it going to be -- teams that are gambling they have enough fuel to be good to the last drop? Or will it be full-contact racing?

Either way, expect the next six weeks to be quite intriguing as NASCAR drivers get down to some Risky Business.