In NASCAR’s Chase format, winning still isn’t everything

There are many paths to a championship in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series.

Who’s to say which is best so long as the outcome – winning the title – remains the same?

Entering Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, eight drivers are still in the hunt for the 2014 series championship.

Some, such as wins leaders Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, are considered bigger favorites than those without a win, such as Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth.

Should they be?

“NASCAR writes the rules out at the beginning of the year. There is no predetermined road map to get there, and I can assure you most of these teams haven’t really written their road map, us included,” said Luke Lambert, Newman’s crew chief. “We would have wanted to have won more races by now and our plan all along was to get to this point having won a race.”

While NASCAR’s new format emphasizes winning, wins aren’t required to win the championship or even to advance through each of the three-race rounds of the Chase.

Newman and his Richard Childress Racing No. 31 team have been consistent all season, and particularly during the Chase.

In the first six races of the 10-race playoff, Newman has scored the fifth-most points among all drivers. Only three Chase participants are ranked ahead of him – Keselowski, Logano and Kevin Harvick – and they are among the three of the strongest teams this season.

“No one can second guess who wins this thing because to do so that team will have had to excel at each point in the season to score the most points under this format,” Lambert said. “It takes a very calculated approach to win this thing, and you can’t have any chinks in your armor when you get to the Chase. You’ve got to carry a high level of consistency and/or aggressive dominance at the right time.”

A win in one of the next three races by a still-eligible Chase driver automatically gives them a shot at the title in the Nov. 16 season-finale at Homestead, Fla.

At most, however, winners will fill three of the four Homestead spots. At least one position will go to a driver based on their position in points.

“Our strength has been our consistency this season but, the last three races have also been the strength of our consistency, having a sixth, a seventh and a fifth when it really matters,” said Newman, in his first season with RCR.

“I’ve said all along when we got back to some of these race tracks a second time this year, it would be our chance to show our ability to have learned from our first experience together as a team.”

Wins clearly don’t guarantee success. Two Chase drivers with multiple wins this season – Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – have already been eliminated. Neither won a race since August, however.

While Newman hasn’t won this season, he did find himself in position to win last weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. He led 10 laps late – the second-most he’s led this season.

“We were really surprised to be in that situation. I spent most of the day in the back kind of monitoring what was happening in front of us,” Newman said. “I thought we had a good, fast car and I stayed out front longer than I thought I was going to.”

Lambert said he likes the position the team is in right now.

“Certainly we’re happy to be here but this is not what we consider to be the final goal for this team. We plan to continue on,” he said.

“Coming into this year I felt we had everything we needed as a race team to make it to the Chase and contend for the championship. That has been our objective since Day 1.

“Here we are.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer