Winning changes everything as race to make Chase heats up

This time of year, NASCAR is divided into two camps, the haves and the have nots.

What distinguishes them is winning.

The haves are the 10 drivers who've already won Sprint Cup races and are all but guaranteed a spot in the 10-race, season-ending Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

The drivers and teams who've won already have it easy over the final 11 races of the Sprint Cup regular season, starting with Sunday's Save Mart/Toyota 350 at Sonoma Raceway (FS1, 3 p.m. ET).

Sure, the haves want to win every week.

But if they don't win, it doesn't make a bit of difference if they finish second, third, fourth or 40th. They're already in the Chase, so they don't have to worry about points.

And the dirty little secret is that since 10 of the next 11 races are at tracks not in the Chase, the teams don't focus on those tracks too much. Instead, the championship-caliber teams are already gearing up for NASCAR's playoff season.

Winning a race does that.

"It does take a little bit of, I don't want to call it pressure, but it relieves you a little bit to where you can say, 'OK, we're in,'" said Joey Logano, the most recent Sprint Cup race winner. "That's definitely nice and, like I said, coming to a race track like this it's really nice. I feel like this is a good little relief for our race team and we can now start focusing in on making our cars faster for the Chase."

But for guys still looking for a win, every week the pressure ratchets up a little bit. And they have to race differently, too: If you're locked into the Chase, you can afford to gamble on trying to stretch fuel mileage, because if you run out gas two laps from the end, you're still in the Chase.

But a winless driver trying to make the Chase on points doesn't have that luxury, because if they run out of gas on the last lap, they could lose 30 points, which would be a devastating blow.

"Just got to be consistent, keep running up front and if we can run up front wins will happen," said Kyle Larson, who comes into Sunday's race winless but 19th in points. "In our position you still have to make the most of your day and get the most points you can."

Another driver on the edge of the Chase is AJ Allmendinger, who qualified second for the race and is 20th in points. He wants to win badly at Sonoma -- this is his home track -- but he can't take wild risks, either.

"It's a lot different than it's been the last couple of years here, knowing that's it's basically all or nothing because we'd be so far back in points, we'd have to win the race just to make the Chase," said Allmendinger. "We're not in that position. We've been kind of right on or in the cutoff."

There's one other factor to consider: The contenders don't need to win, or even run well, but they want to have momentum as the Chase nears.

"It's important to establish some momentum for your program," said Adam Stevens, crew chief for reigning Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch. "To do that, you need to run well, but you have to balance that with taking every opportunity that you can to learn. There's certainly things you can learn at tracks that aren't in the Chase. "

Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is also looking to gain momentum over the summer stretch.

"I think our track record, especially in the Chase era, shows that a slow summer doesn't prevent you from winning a championship," said Johnson. "I guess there's some stats to prove that."

Johnson knows he needs to get headed in the right direction after five finishes outside the top 15 in his last six races.

"We need to get back to our winning ways of leading laps and finishing in the top two or three because that momentum brings so much confidence within the race team with the decisions I make and that Chad (Knaus, crew chief) makes, the pit stops, and all of that," said Johnson. "So, we need to get back into that."