You hear it all the time.
NASCAR’s current post-season format is designed around winning. It’s why TV commentators each week go on and on about the importance of stage points, finding ways to remind viewers that winning races, even for a driver with multiple race wins, matters a lot.
The emphasis is all well and good until drivers realize that they, their teams, and crew chiefs can manipulate that focus on winning.
That was proved deftly on Saturday (Oct. 30) on the close-quartered bullring of Martinsville Speedway.
Much has been made, probably too much this season on the Quest For The Holy Grail-like seeking of a first race victory for Daniel Hemric, who has a combined 207 races across all three of NASCAR’s national series.
How’s this for irony? The only driver in the Championship 4 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this weekend at Phoenix to not have won a race this year is Hemric — the driver known in some ways for not having yet been able to do that.
Why’s Hemric in the Championship 4? In part, it is because what he did last weekend at Martinsville is what he has done all year: run well and be in position for a strong finish. That’s not to say there’s a lack of desire to win. Last weekend, the quest for that race win appeared to be coming to an end, with Hemric out front as the final caution flew.
That’s when the choice changed — from playing it safe on points instead of going to checkers or wreckers. With Noah Gragson out front, Hemric opted not to start on the outside front row. Rather, it was the inside of the second row.
Giving up a chance at a sure win probably went against all conventional wisdom. Like any racer, Hemric straps the belts on to win. But this playoff format has done one thing for certain – changed the definition of what a win is.
On Saturday, instead of a trip to victory lane, a win for Hemric was ensuring a berth in the Championship 4.
“I have got to tell you — it’s the first time as a racer that I’ve had to choose to not put myself in the best position to win,” Hemric said after the race. “I wanted to line up on the top. I felt like I could beat him if everything is all fair games.”
Let this one sink in. Hemric slipped into the Championship 4 by way of taking the safe play and not going for broke and the win.
“We went all in together and chose the bottom, but the racer in me wanted to go to the top,” he said. “You want to race it out for the win, I knew we had the racecar to be sitting in victory lane right now. But situational awareness, trying to minimize damage, you got to hope for the best and plan for the worst. That’s what the last restart was all about, trying to put yourself in the best position and also if something goes awry how do you minimize it.”
What Saturday at Martinsville revealed is that teams can get into the Championship 4 by deliberately not going for the win, and that’s a problem.
Unless, of course, that not winning helps Hemric win a title by getting that elusive win on Saturday, in Phoenix and flipping the script on the momentum of Gragson and getting the best of two prohibitive favorites — Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger.
Recent results say that Hemric won’t just be out there running laps at Phoenix, since in three of the last four races he has finished third or better.
“We started the season out with the ultimate goal of trying to run for a championship and we started these playoffs not in the best spot, not the most playoff points,’ Hemric said. “For all we had, winning obviously would be a lot more fun. It doesn’t matter as long as can conquer the ultimate goal next week.”
Hemric won’t be racing for Joe Gibbs Racing next year, as he’ll be behind the wheel for Kaulig Racing. It remains to be seen if he’ll depart by winning a championship after getting into position to do so by not doing what the current postseason format is designed to emphasize.
Is winning everything? Not when it comes to getting in position for a championship, that’s for sure.
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