Dale Jr. all but punches first Chase ticket
February 24, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his second Daytona 500 victory on a long, soggy Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, securing NASCAR's biggest race on its grandest stage. But he also likely punched his ticket for another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prize in the season-long fight.
Earnhardt became the first winner in the new format for determining the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason format, virtually assuring the sport's 11-time Most Popular Driver a berth in the playoffs.
NASCAR expanded the Chase field to 16 drivers during the offseason, making a victory in the 26-race regular season a near-clincher for the 10-race Chase.
"Yeah, (now) we don't have to think about it," said Earnhardt, who placed fifth in the 2013 Sprint Cup standings. "If everyone is telling the truth, and we've won a race, we're going to be in it. ... We're going for the jugular this year."
The Chase format will also include three stages of eliminations, culminating with a four-driver shootout in the season finale this November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But the more immediate impact of the offseason changes were felt in Victory Lane at Daytona.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France reminded the 43 contestants in the pre-race drivers' meeting that more long-term goals were at stake in in the season-opening event.
"Not only is this the most important day for NASCAR, the Daytona 500," France said, "it's also the first chance, the first opportunity to punch your ticket for our version of the playoffs."
Earnhardt laid first claim to a playoff berth. Fifteen more spots are up for grabs in the regular season, starting next Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, 3 p.m. ET on FOX.