TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — David Ragan's surprise victory last season at Talladega Superspeedway gave his fledgling Front Row Motorsports team a taste of the potential inside the organization.
Back at Talladega to defend his win, the stakes are far greater Sunday.
Should Ragan win again this year, the victory could be worth a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Under new Chase qualifying rules enacted this season, drivers can become eligible for NASCAR's 10-race championship format with a victory as long as they are ranked inside the top-30 in the standings. Although there have been no surprise winners this season, Talladega is the lottery ticket that can change the fortune for one lucky driver.
"In the back of our minds, we do think a little bit about if we can get that win," Ragan said. "That's something we don't want to be overwhelmed with and really think about that more than we should, but it is something that we think about it and I guarantee every other team that has not got a win yet this year they think about that too.
"In the closing laps of Sunday's race, I guarantee the top six or eight or top 10 guys that are in contention for the win, they're going to be thinking about that Chase berth if they can cross the finish line first."
There have been seven winners through the first nine races of the season, with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano leading the pack with two victories each. But the list of drivers still looking for the win that could put them in the Chase is long and distinguished.
Six-time and defending series winner Jimmie Johnson hasn't been to Victory Lane yet, and neither has Matt Kenseth. The two raced each other down the stretch for the Sprint Cup title last season and combined to win 13 of the series' 36 races.
Now both are still seeking their first wins of this season.
Both are divided on how the stakes alter the racing.
"I just don't think it changes the racing. I don't think it changes the winners. I just think it changes the reward you get for winning," Kenseth said. "I don't see anybody showing up in May and being like, 'Man, I hope I run 10th today.' Everybody goes out and does everything they can to win these races each and every week no matter what the reward is and no matter what it pays, points or any of that stuff."
But Johnson believes it most certainly changes the racing, especially for those drivers who already have a win. He pointed to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race at Las Vegas, where he tried to push his fuel to the finish in a gamble aimed at picking up his second win of the season.
"It definitely does change the way you race," Johnson said. "I think with that pretty-much guaranteed lock with one win lets you take two tires when maybe you should take four, or try for fuel. Look at what Junior did in Las Vegas. Why not try? They won at Daytona and they're locked-in so let's go for a W."
Also still seeking wins this season are four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, who has at least one win in every season at the Cup level, three-time champion Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Those four drivers have a combined nine wins at Talladega.
But, in a wrinkle this weekend, they'll all have to make it through Saturday's qualifying session to keep their primary cars intact for the race.
NASCAR will debut knockout qualifying at restrictor plate tracks on Saturday, and the outcome could be dicey as various strategies are used throughout the field during the one-hour session. Some drivers could race at the front of the pack, others could lay back.
"It's just going to be out of control, in a good way. There could be some wrecks because there's going to be a lot of cars out there," Johnson said.