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Sixteen Winners? Could Happen Some Are Saying

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 29 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among those who think, yes, 16 drivers could win races this season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Five different winners in the first five NASCAR Sprint Cup races is a trend that existed last year, but with the rule change for Chase admittance this season if the trend continues team strategy could be in flux until the September Richmond event.

“If we get into week 13 and 14 and we have got 12 winners at that particular point with 10 races left in the regular season, guys are going to get a little more protective of their position in points,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Martinsville Speedway during preparations for this weekend’s STP 500. “I hope that we don’t really get to that situation.”

The record for the most different winners at the start of a season – 10 – was set in 2000. If a driver who hasn’t won this year visits victory lane Sunday, it will set a record for the Chase era, which began in 2004. And it could happen since only one of the last 19 race winners has already visited victory lane this season. Kevin Harvick, who won at Phoenix, visited Martinsville’s victory lane in the spring of 2011. The other 18 events have either been won by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman, all winless this year.

“I believe we’re going to have more than 16 winners (this year),” said Carl Edwards, who won at Bristol.

The record for the number of different winners in a Sprint Cup season is 19, set in 1956 and then tied in 1958, 1961 and 2001.

“It feels like there are more competitive cars (this year),” Edwards said. “The disparity throughout the field is smaller between the cars, so I believe that it’s not just the win that has us feeling like we can be aggressive, it’s our points position.”

Edwards enters the Martinsville race in the standings lead, one point ahead of Earnhardt Jr. Under the 2014 rules, a victory basically assures a driver of entrance into the Chase for the Championship. If 16 drivers don’t have a victory after the season’s first 26 races, NASCAR reverts to the point standings to round out the 16-Chase field. If more than 16 drivers have a victory then the number of wins and points position determine the Chase field. The point leader after the first 26 races is guaranteed a position in the Chase.

“Not having the burden of worrying about points and being able to just race one weekend after the next and not worrying about anything else was great,” 2014 Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt Jr. said. “Having to fall back into that mode of concentrating on your points position, your track position, maximizing every race to get the most points, that is a bit of a burden.

“If we get into about the 12th or 13th week and we still don’t have a two-time winner in the season, I think guys are going to start to change the way they think about points. I don’t think the racing changes. I don’t think the competition and the product changes. Intensity on the race track, I think, will stay the same if not increase.”

Four-time NASCAR champion Gordon believes drivers who have already won this year are better candidates for being roughed up for a victory at the end of an event.

“I think there is such a huge advantage to them to be relaxed and go about business a different way than the rest of us who haven’t won yet,” Gordon said. “I think you always have to look at both sides of it. They are looking at it … (that they) can be more aggressive with setups and what (they) can do to prep for the next race or winning the championship. But you also have to remember there are a lot of other guys out there that haven’t won yet and are really hungry to get that win because we see how important it is.

“To me, it’s not just important to lock yourself in the Chase, we are all here to try and win the championship. And it is a huge step forward to winning the championship because of the mindset that you go into and how you approach each race after you have gotten a win.”

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 29 2014
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