WINS, wins, wins . . .
NASCAR's new emphasis on winning races is a good thing. Drivers who win during the season's first 26 Sprint Cup races will likely be in the expanded 16-driver Chase field, provided they are in the top 30 in points.
Should Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, stay atop the standings but fail to collect a victory in the first 26 races, he'll still be a Chaser. He would bump the lowest-ranked driver with a win. The way Gordon is running though, expect him to be in victory lane soon.
The record of 16 different winners in the first 26 races, set in 1961 and 2003, probably won't be matched again. Since the Chase was launched in 2004, there haven't been 16 different winners in the regular season. Last year, 13 drivers won races before the Chase.
So, while the focus more than ever is on winning, points are still important. Drivers want to be as high in the standings as possible because you never know in racin' what crazy things can happen (see Richmond last year in the regular-season finale).
Jamie McMurray is among the drivers seeking their first win of the year. McMurray, a two-time winner at Talladega, the site of Sunday's Cup race, is 19th in points (best finish this year, sixth at California). He needs to hang around the top 20 and gain a victory.
"I don't think anyone is doing anything any differently," McMurray said on a conference call yesterday. "If it comes down at Richmond last week or Talladega this week and you take a gamble on fuel mileage, everyone is going to do the same thing.
"I think the mentality has changed that everyone races to win every week, and I don't think that what they've done this year has made anyone try harder or do anything different, because you only can race based on the circumstances that are given for that event."
We're seeing compelling finishes almost every race, because the drivers are going all-out for wins. Referring to late-race cautions that bunch the field, Joey Logano, a two-time winner already this year, said after his victory at Richmond Saturday night, "Everyone has the same attitude: The heck with it; if we crash, we crash. We're going for wins."
Gordon isn't planning on crashing. The four-time Cup titlist is enjoying racing too much.
"We're having so much fun right now," he said after his runner-up finish at Richmond. "I just can't thank this team enough for their incredible effort. Pit stops, I mean everything. We're just showing up at the racetrack with cars capable of winning. It's just a matter of time before we do win.
"I'm enjoying this car and I attribute a lot of that to my team, but also NASCAR for making some really good adjustments. The cars are fast, they're comfortable, fun to drive, you can be aggressive with them."
Gordon's six wins at Talladega top active drivers.
After Casey Mears and Marcos Ambrose engaged in a shoving/punching match in the garage area following the Richmond race, NASCAR fined Ambrose, the puncher, $25,000 while Mears, the catcher, received a $15,000 fine. Both are on probation until May 28.
Appearing Monday on "NASCAR Race Hub" on Fox Sports 1, Mears, sporting a bruise near his left eye, said he and Ambrose had a few issues on the track.
"At the end of the day, none of that should ever happen," Mears said. "But in the heat of the moment, when you get out of your race car, it just happened. We started going at each other and before we knew it, it escalated really quickly. For a moment I kind of wanted to hit him, [but] I thought, 'I can't do that.' So, I grabbed him, and it turned out the way that it did."
Mears said he and Ambrose have "talked through it." What concerns Mears and other drivers is, how far can they take disputes? A few years ago, NASCAR encouraged a "boys, have it at" policy, though evidently not for off-track encounters.
Juan Pablo Montoya, back in the Verizon IndyCar series, is returning to NASCAR to drive in two races for Team Penske. Surprisingly, the races aren't on road courses, where Montoya gained his only Cup wins. He'll attempt to qualify at Michigan June 15 and Indianapolis July 27. Hatboro's Greg Erwin will be his crew chief.
Montoya, 11th in points after three IndyCar races this year, will race in the Pocono IndyCar 500 July 6 at Pocono Raceway.