NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR's Chase is on for bonus points

LONG POND, Pa. - The five drivers atop the Sprint Cup standings entering today's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway aren't yet mathematically ensured of making this year's Chase.

But come on, let's be honest.

Kyle Busch, 644 points clear of 13th place, could take a few weeks off and still make the cut. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards aren't quite as safe, but Edwards is 324 points clear of the cut and would have to fall apart to miss NASCAR's playoff.

That puts those drivers into an odd state of limbo over the next six weeks. The only thing they can do to help themselves is win races to earn 10-point bonuses for the Chase.

Anything else is largely, pardon the pun, pointless.

"That's why I was so frustrated finishing second at Indianapolis," Edwards said. "For us, right now there's really not all that much difference between second and, say, 20th."

As drivers near the top of the standings clinched their Chase spots last year, some said they felt briefly unencumbered from the bonds of "points racing" and freed to pursue victories without consequence.

But the idea that a Cup driver can do anything different to pursue victories and the bonus points that come with them doesn't sit particularly well with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"We don't go for wins any harder than we always do," said Earnhardt Jr., who's second in points and all but locked in for the Chase. "I get sick of hearing about that, whether we try to go for wins harder, because we're always going for wins. We go for them as hard as we can all the time. ... Don't think there is a driver that's ever driven in this series that isn't trying to win."

Later in Earnhardt Jr.'s weekly media session, a reporter revisited the issue. The second time around Earnhardt Jr., who starts 12th here today, was even more pointed with his response.

"When is any driver not going for wins?" he said. "Is it more important to win in the Chase? Yeah, because that's when you're going to win the championship. Sure. Is it as important to win during the 26-race season? Yeah, because you get the bonus points. But don't ask me if I gamble more to win. I go hard, man, every week. Every driver does.

"Maybe I'm taking your question wrong. But I guess I'm feeling that you're asking me if I work harder because it counts more. And that's a little bit of an insult if that's how it's coming across. I want to win every race. Every one. I put it on the line, man. It's really no different, regardless of the points and regardless of the time of the season."

Kyle Busch, who leads the standings and has seven victories so far this year, agrees.

"You just try to go out there and do the same thing every week," said Busch, who starts 27th here today. "Try to be the best and try to win races."

But it's not a question of effort as much as it is one about attitude and strategy. There are things a driver and his team can and will do differently depending on their points positions between now and the cutoff after the 26th race at Richmond.

A team locked into the Chase might be more willing to try an unproven but promising setup, or to gamble on fuel mileage or other aspect of pit strategy in the waning laps of a race.

"I'd say maybe in a race or two, we could think about gambling," said Johnson, who won his second straight pole for this race and who comes in off last week's victory at Indianapolis. "Bonus points are very important."

The bonus points don't matter if you don't make the Chase first, though. That means that drivers not in the clear do have to think more about the risk side when considering a risk-vs.-reward decision.

Sixth-place Jeff Gordon is just 184 points clear of 13th.

"We need a couple more weeks of some solid runs like we've been having," Gordon said. "We're not solidly in; we're right in the middle there. We can't start taking too many risks to try to get those bonus points but yet we want to win races and try to stay up front to make sure we're solidly in the Chase.

"Pretty much for the next couple of weeks, we're going to go along as business as it has been. And then hopefully we can get ourselves a little more solidly in there. We can start taking some big risks whether it's two tires or no tires or changing up the pit strategy and throwing some wacky setups in there. We certainly can't do that right now."

TODAY'S RACE

Pennsylvania 500

At Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.

When: 2 p.m. TV: ESPN

Weather: Partly cloudy, 70 degrees

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