Carl Edwards smiled as he spoke. He knows what’s about to come in the next 10 weeks, the anxiety and anger, intensity and insomnia, conflict and contact.
It makes the first 26 races seem like paradise to what is to come in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“It feels like,’’ Edwards said after Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, “things are a little too calm.’’
He’s right. Patience and serenity have enveloped this season. Yes, drivers scream about each other on the radio but it hasn’t gone much beyond that. Yet.
It’s just like last year before the Chase interrupted a tame season. Suddenly, Matt Kenseth – Matt Kenseth! – chased Brad Keselowski and tried to put him into a headlock at Charlotte. Then Jeff Gordon – Jeff Gordon! – was in the middle of a pit road scrum with Keselowski at Texas that left Gordon with a cut lip.
“Whatever you have to do is what you have to do,’’ said Kevin Harvick, who pushed Keselowski toward Gordon, igniting that tense situation. “It’s not about making more friends.’’
That easily could become the tagline for the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.
Competitors anticipate much conflict on and off the track as the Chase progresses. Call it a by-product of NASCAR’s desire to ratchet the intensity last year by increasing the field and eliminating drivers throughout the Chase.
“There was a lot of fuel in the air last year, and that Chase lit that fire,’’ Ryan Newman said. “I think there is potential for that to happen again.’’
Newman said he saw more aggressive driving earlier this month at Darlington Raceway and says it will just keep “building.’’
As it does, more drivers will share the same feelings as they move closer to the championship.
“It’s an awesome feeling to have that kind of stress eating holes in your stomach,’’ Gordon said sarcastically.
With four drivers eliminated every third Chase race, it leaves little time for patience on the track. Dale Earnhardt Jr., seeking his first title, knows that his mindset must change. Noted for driving with the courtesy Mark Martin showed on the track, Earnhardt says he can’t be like that all the time in the Chase.
“If you’ve got a fast car and guys are holding you up, you’ve go to be aggressive, you’ve got to get around them fast,’’ he said. “Every point is going to matter. If you root somebody out of the way, you got to understand that’s what we’ve come to with this Chase.
“I don’t expect anybody to get upset if I have to move them, and if I get somebody moving me out of the way, that’s hard racing. As long as you don’t put a guy in the wall, I don’t see anything wrong with it.’’
That’s the urgency of the Chase. There are no guarantees. Kyle Busch entered the Talladega race last year second in the points and seemed safe to advance to the Eliminator Round only to be wrecked and fail to advance.
“It just seems like there’s no time, there’s nothing – no period of the Chase that it’s a comfortable moment where you can ride a little bit,’’ Clint Bowyer said. “It’s always crunch time and you’ve got to go.”
Even if that means shoving a car out of the way. The repercussions can be dealt with later.