RICHMOND, Va.—After seven months and 28 races, NASCAR has hit that part of the season that really matters.
The start of the playoffs signifies a shift in attitude and aggression. And if there was any doubt the mindset had changed, Kevin Harvick posted a warning about his mood for the next 10 weeks.
It was a video of an angry bull charging into the grandstands.
And so the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with 16 drivers laser-focused on the big prize.
It’s 10 races, three rounds of elimination, and every man for himself.
So don’t be surprised if tempers boil over, paint is traded on the track, angry words are exchanged.
It’s already started, to a degree. Tony Stewart intentionally has wrecked drivers in two-straight races, including Saturday night’s regular-season finale with contact that officially ended Ryan Newman’s shot at making the “Chase.”
A frustrated Newman called his former boss “bipolar” and said Stewart had anger issues.
Stewart was nonchalant, saying Newman had it coming after running into him three times at Richmond.
Remember, the “Chase” and this format can bring out the worst in even the most mild-mannered driver.
Matt Kenseth tackled Brad Keselowski in a very un-Kenseth-like attack in 2014, then earned a NASCAR suspension last year for an intentional crash that ruined Joey Logano’s title chances.
Denny Hamlin, who won Saturday night at his home track to give Joe Gibbs Racing three-straight victories at Richmond and wins in nine of the last 15, said the jockeying for the final spots in the “Chase” field led to some of the recent aggression.
He also speculated the length of the season could be a contributor, especially for drivers not battling for the title.
“Some guys have a care factor that’s really low right now,” Hamlin noted.
“I think things get a little bit tamer in the ‘Chase’ because people are aware of the ‘Chase’ cars,” he added.
“Whether they say so or not, they definitely race a little bit more careful around those guys, especially when you’re not racing for a win.”
As for the “Chase” drivers themselves? When the field will be trimmed by four at the end of each round, Hamlin expects to see tense racing.
“As guys get eliminated, it could definitely ramp back up again,” he remarked.
So now it’s all about strategy and how each driver plans to attack each round.
For some, like Chris Buescher, just getting into the 16-driver field was the prize.
Last year’s Xfinity Series champion made the “Chase” by winning a rain-shortened race at Pocono, but he doesn’t want to settle for a “happy to be here” attitude.
“We look at this first round, and we want to make it past that round. We want to move through the ‘Chase,’” Buescher stressed.
“Then we can re-evaluate from there.
“If we can keep going farther and improve our program each and every weekend, that’s always going to be what we’re aiming to do,” he added.
Stewart also is assessing his final “Chase” appearance before he retires at the end of the year.
He slumped his way into the 2011 “Chase” and said his team didn’t even deserve a spot in the field.
Then he won the whole thing—his third NASCAR title.
So Stewart is just going to play this one by ear.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” he mused. “All I care about right now is getting ready for Chicago.
“Once we get through that, I’ll worry about Week 2.”