Play It Safe? Or Play for Wins?
When it came right down to it, Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was decided by a decidedly different set of opinions on how the race should be approached.
While some teams were intent on merely surviving and obviously drove as conservatively as possible -- and that's relatively speaking on a 2.66-mile oval where speeds frequently approach 200 miles per hour -- others were determined to run up front from the drop of the green flag.
As winning car owner Richard Childress would say afterward, the latter approach was the one the late Dale Earnhardt could appreciate. The other one? Uh, maybe not so much.
So when Clint Bowyer's No. 33 Chevrolet beat Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton's No. 31 to the start/finish line to take the checkered flag on the final lap, Childress obviously was beaming with pride. But he could be proud of how his RCR gang raced all day -- not just on that last lap.
It could be argued that the RCR cars of Bowyer and Burton could afford to be aggressive, even bordering on reckless, because they aren't among the 12 drivers left competing for a championship in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But RCR's only Chase contender, Kevin Harvick, also participated in the aggressive approach and paid a dear price for it when he got caught up in a costly six-car wreck not of his own doing on Lap 104 of the 188-lap event.
"I was really proud of RCR cars all day," Childress said. "These fans pay a lot of money. I hate it for Kevin, but he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. All of our RCR cars race to give these fans a show. We didn't sit in the back and ride until the last minute. Our cars ran all day long. We don't get paid to ride in the back."
Roush Fenway vs. RCR
Obviously, that Childress comment was a dig at the Roush Fenway Racing approach taken by Chase points leader Carl Edwards. He rode in the rear much of the day and mainly just attempted to make it through. He led one time for one lap to pick up a valuable bonus point and was rewarded with a mundane 11th-place finish that nonetheless increased his points lead to 14 over new second-place challenger Matt Kenseth, a Roush Fenway teammate.
Harvick, who entered the race in second and only five points behind Edwards in the Chase standings, led six times for a total of 13 laps but left Talladega in fifth and 26 points out after being relegated to a 32nd-place finish. Kenseth, who actually was much more aggressive on the whole than Edwards and led seven times for a total of 21 laps, moved into second despite managing only an 18th-place finish.
Childress was left to balance the joy of finishing one-two in the race with Bowyer and Burton with the bitter disappointment of what happened to RCR's only championship contender. He said he offered encouraging words to Harvick afterward.
"I mean, we're not done. I told him, 'Don't stick a fork in us yet. We're definitely not done. We're going to race, take no prisoners, do a deal, race as hard as we can," Childress said.
"It's unfortunate that Kevin got in that crash. He was doing what we all talked about doing, running up front. It just happened he got hung up in it."
Childress acknowledged just how costly the accident may have been to the No. 29 team's title hopes.
"It may have cost us the championship," he admitted. "We may have been able to ride in the back and wait it out. But that wasn't what Kevin wanted to do. We had all of our sponsors here, and that just isn't what we wanted to do. It may bite us in the end, but I'm proud of him."
Change in order?
All of which left Edwards in position to become the first driver to win a championship with only one victory since Kenseth in 2003 -- the year that led to the formation of the Chase. Prior to Kenseth, you have to go all the way back to 1973 to find a one-win champion in Benny Parsons, who won the 18th event of that 28-race season at Bristol.
There have been only four one-win champions in the 62-year history of NASCAR's top national touring division. In addition to Kenseth and Parsons, the others were Ned Jarrett in 1961 and Bill Rexford in 1950 (when he made 17 starts during what was only a 19-race schedule). Heck, even Red Byron needed to log two wins over an eight-race schedule to earn the distinction of becoming the very first champion in 1949.
Edwards still has four races to add to his win total, of course, beginning this Saturday at Martinsville Speedway. And let's be honest: he's not going to care in the least if he becomes a one-win champion. He'd be the first to point out, correctly, that he didn't win the title in 2008 despite capturing a series-high nine races because he wasn't as consistent overall that year in the Chase as Jimmie Johnson.
But Edwards' lone victory this year came at Las Vegas in the third race of the season. That was on March 6, more than seven months ago.
Folks have long complained that Johnson winning a sixth championship in a row this year would not be good for the sport. What about having a guy who hasn't won a race in seven or eight months and plays it conservatively down the stretch?
This argument isn't meant to slam Edwards, who has earned his position under the current system and deserves now to play it out any way he can to get to the finish in first. And again, he's got four races left to win at least one more race and alter the argument -- including two venues in Texas and Homestead where he's traditionally very good.
But it gives pause for thought and makes one wonder if it might not behoove NASCAR to consider making wins in the Chase worth more than wins in the regular season going forward. That would provide all those giving chase to Edwards more of a fighting chance over these last four, and force Edwards, or whomever has the points lead, to go faster, risk more.
Isn't that what racing for a championship should be about? That's certainly what Childress believes, and the credo by which the most famous driver who ever worked for him lived.
"I think it goes back to some of the philosophy that Dale and I planned many years ago," Childress said. "We still use that same philosophy. That's race as hard as you can, run up front all day.
"That's what you're in this business for -- to race hard, put on a show for the fans."
Giving more bonus points for wins during the Chase would likely ensure that everyone does it with five races to go in a season.