At Bristol, Tenn. 1 p.m. (Fox)

NASCAR Sprint Cup winners comprise new, exclusive club

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 15, 2014 

— There’s a new club in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Right now, it’s an exclusive club with just three members – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. Keselowski joked the group even had “it’s own secret handshake.”

It’s NASCAR’s winner’s club.

Admittance to the club brings with it a great sense of relief, an ability to throw caution to the wind in search of more victories and a willingness to play the odds.

As the weeks unfold during the 2014 season, membership in this club will likely grow, while the actions of those hoping to gain membership will become more desperate.

That combination – thanks to the new winning-means-everything championship format – has the ability to pit NASCAR teams against each other, not only for positions on the track but also in a battle of wits, of sorts, with various strategies playing out up and down pit road.

The next opportunity to increase club membership comes in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin will start from the pole.

“When it was just me and Kevin (Harvick) and we began to think about ‘the pressure is off,’ you were like, ‘Man I don’t want anybody else in this club,’ ” said Earnhardt, who won the season-opening Daytona 500.

“Brad now is in it, who is probably the last guy you want in the club because they gamble regardless of the system. They will take risks and stay out on old tires and Brad will drive his guts out. We know that.

“The more people that join it as an early member of the group – you don’t want anybody else in.”

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team was the first to openly admit the new Chase format was the sole reason it chose to make a fuel mileage gamble last weekend at Las Vegas in hopes of a victory, rather than settle for what was likely to be a top 10 finish.

Shortly after Keselowski’s win – thanks to Earnhardt running out of fuel on the last lap – he, too, was reveling in the opportunity to be in the same position as Earnhardt and Harvick.

“If you’re not worried about that penalty of a 30th-place day, you’re in a great position to really go after that and that’s where we’re at. That’s where Dale’s at, that’s where Kevin is at,” Keselowski said.

“I’m sure some more will join that winner’s club pretty soon and it’s a good place to be because it’s stress-free when you know that you can take those chances and if it doesn’t work out, the worst thing that happens is you park a few spots further down on the grid for practice next week.

“That’s a really good feeling.”

There are some other unexpected benefits as well, particularly for Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

This is Harvick’s first season at SHR and first working with most of his team members, including crew chief Rodney Childers.

What is one of the most stressful concerns of a new team? Figuring out how to get all parts of team on one page for a victory.

Harvick’s win at Phoenix not only virtually ensured himself an opportunity to compete for the series championship this season, but cemented a sense of relief on his team that they were headed in the right direction.

“As a new team, we got a lot of learning to do, still. We kind of needed to get that win out of the way and use this time for everyone to learn about each other,” said Childers.

“For us to win a championship, we still have a lot to do and a lot to learn about each other – a lot of equipment and cars to make better. The early win does give us some breathing room but we’re also going to push every week to try to win more.”

The changing dynamic of those teams with wins and those still trying to earn them has the ability spice up races from start to finish, Earnhardt said.

“You are going to be at tracks where you will see there will be a difference in performance between vehicles because of the strategies and therefore there will probably be closer racing and more action,” he said.

“The cars won’t just be spread out because everybody will have the same tires, same fuel – it will be a little bit different at each track and it presents some good races more often than not.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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