NASCAR playoffs begin with amped up aggression and attitude
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 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 has intentionally wrecked drivers in two consecutive 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, said 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 he 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 consecutive 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 said. "I think things get a little bit tamer in the Chase because people are aware of the Chase cars. 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 said.
Harvick certainly plans to live up to his word.
The 2014 champion, the first winner under the elimination format, has never backed down from anyone or anything. His scathing assessment of his pit crew led to two changes to his race team last week. When he was flagged for speeding on pit road, driver error instead of team error, it could have been seen as a bit of karma working against Harvick for being less than politically correct about his own crew.
He doesn't care what it takes, though, he just wants results.
"You just have to be selfish. You have to do what's best for your team, worry about the consequences when all the dust settles," he said. "You have to be narrow-minded, not listen to anything, and do whatever it takes to figure out how to make the best performance. Every point matters. This is a minute-by-minute battle.
"You just try to think of dotting every I and crossing every T because that's what it's all about, and you have to get everything out of every person that touches everything on that car at another level to win this deal."
So now it's 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 said. "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."
Stewart is also 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 he's just going to play this one by ear.
"Who knows what's going to happen?" he said. "All I care about right now is getting ready for Chicago. Once we get through that, I'll worry about Week 2. This is a stressful 10 weeks and you take it one week at a time. That's what we did in '11, and it worked."