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Drivers changing mentality as Chase nears

August 10, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



Drivers changing mentality as Chase nears
Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth looking to gamble and also protect leads down stretch

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to make a statement and he's prepared to gamble to do it if necessary.

"I'm feeling like we haven't quite made the statement we want to make this year," Earnhardt said.

"We [have been] really conservative all year long. We feel like, in the position we are in now, we can gamble a lot more."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"We want to win the championship and we want to battle for [it]. On the way to getting that done, you want to win more races. We [have been] really conservative all year long. We feel like, in the position we are in now, we can gamble a lot more."

And drivers like Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth -- all but locked into the Chase for the Cup -- say they aren't about to play it safe, either.

To a man, the leaders say they're more inclined to go for broke than to back off.

Earnhardt, who has nine top-fives but only one win this season, says rolling the dice doesn't mean he'll do anything silly behind the wheel. The gambles could take place in terms of the decisions made in the pits.

To fuel or not to fuel? Two tires or four?

"Not [to] be foolish, but we could try to stretch the car on fuel mileage ... to try to win races like a lot of [other teams]," Earnhardt said. "[Until now], we've just kind of played it safe and made sure we were going to make the Chase.

"Now, we're in a good position. These last few races we can kind of just throw it all out there. Hopefully we can make some of those gambles pay off, things will work out in a positive way and we'll win some races before the Chase starts."

When NASCAR resets the point standings at the start of the Chase, it will be bonus points for victories, not series standings points, which will matter most. Earnhardt and others would like to position themselves with wins in the next five races.

"If we fall back in points because we made a few mistakes, and some gambles didn't pay off it's not a big deal," Earnhardt said. "We know what kind of season we've had and we know we've got a lot to be proud of. I think, mentally, we can go into the Chase pretty excited about our chances.

It may not be time for go-for-broke gambles, but it's also not time to lay back and rest on the points already accrued.

"I don't know how you can rest," Earnhardt said. "You want to win the race. You want to do well. You can't take the time off."

Although he enters the weekend at Watkins Glen second in points, five behind Earnhardt, Kenseth would like to re-establish himself as well. His lone victory this season came in the Daytona 500.

"You always want to win and you always want to bring your best stuff," said Kenseth, who notes that Cup racing is different than most sports because it rewards the players going into its version of the playoffs. "Obviously, they rank you by wins. It would be like in the NFL if they started your playoff game with some points, instead of starting 0-0."

Kenseth isn't taking anything for granted, despite being 117 points ahead of 11th-place driver Kasey Kahne.

"I think it's important to try to get a win before the Chase starts and to make sure we're in the Chase," he said. "After the last two weeks (35th at Indianapolis, 23rd at Pocono), anything can happen. If we have many more of those, we might be getting back toward that 10th spot -- [closer] than we want to be."

Cup racing differs from other sports in another important way as the playoffs loom. The participants aren't worried about their knees, ankles or elbows slowing them down.

"I think, in other sports they're more worried about an injury than anything else," says Johnson, fourth in points but just eight behind Earnhardt. "We certainly run that risk with our over-the-wall guys. But from a driver's stand point it's just not the same environment.

"There is more to be had [being] in a rhythm and with momentum. I remember seeing a few instances where teams that rested players lost that rhythm and maybe lost a little mojo as a result. You've just got to weigh your risk factors. In other sports the injury factor is really high. We are fortunate to not have that."

Earnhardt agrees on the issue of physical preparedness.

"The cars are safe and we are not in physical danger of injury," he says. "That kind of stuff may loom large in stick-and- ball sports, but in our sport really the only thing you've got to worry about is burning yourself out mentally. If you just prepare yourself for that, you can handle that."