Listening to Marcos Ambrose voice the concept was jarring just because it seemed so long since this once-omnipresent drumbeat had been sounded in NASCAR's premier series.
"You've got to win, that's what NASCAR is all about," Ambrose said in a conference call with news reporters previewing Sunday's race at Sonoma Raceway. "The new points format and the way they've set it up this year, winning is everything. That's really what we think about every single week."
For a while, it's all NASCAR drivers were talking about every week. The mid-January announcement that Chase for the Sprint Cup berths would be tied primarily to victories was the dominant narrative for a month entering the Daytona 500. And when the season began with seven winners in seven races, "who will punch their Chase ticket this week?" became a persistent siren call.
But the chorus has faded. It's been nearly a month since the most recent first-time winner in Sprint Cup, and Jimmie Johnson's victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway was a foregone conclusion.
On the heels of Johnson's series-high third win (in four weeks) at Michigan International Speedway, where Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed six of the top eight spots, the question no longer is "how many winners will there be?"
It's "how many actually are left?"
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There have been 10 through 15 points races, and with 11 races remaining in the "regular season," the prospects are growing dimmer for stamping more with NASCAR's new winner decals this year – particularly without the Hendrick horsepower that has won five consecutive races (six counting Jamie McMurray's All-Star Race victory). Outside of the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, drivers in Fords and Toyotas are playing for first in class on superspeedways, which account for seven of the final 10 races.
Sonoma, where the brute strength of multicar teams takes a backseat to the smooth finesse of driver talent, might represent one of the last opportunities for a first-time winner such as Ambrose, who nearly won on the 1.99-mile road course in 2010 and has two victories at Watkins Glen International.
This also might signify the point at which the emphasis on wins over points turns on its head.
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If the 16 Chase spots aren't occupied completely by drivers with wins, the field will be filled via the points standings, and there currently are six winless drivers occupying provisional berths. Five of them enter Sonoma with limited chances for a victory.
Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Greg Biffle are veterans who haven't won on a road course. Kyle Larson is a rookie whose shifting skills are so nascent, he has been given a Camaro to maximize his time with a manual transmission.
Clint Bowyer, the 2012 winner at Sonoma, is the lone strong candidate of the group for a win at Sonoma, but the risks to capture a checkered flag still might not be worth it.
Bowyer is 14th in the standings, 15 points ahead of the current Chase cutoff. Gambling on gaining positions at Sonoma can have disastrous consequences, even with a strong car, because so many will finish on the lead lap. A miscalculation on fuel or an ill-timed caution flag could cost a few dozen positions and seal a driver's doom in a Chase bid.
Brian Vickers learned the consequences at Michigan, where a first-lap crash and 42nd-place finish for his No. 15 Toyota dropped him five spots from 13th to 18th in the standings.
Conventional wisdom has held that gambling for a win would become the default strategy.
But if you aren't strong enough yet to contend, why does it make sense to gamble when a solid points finish can keep your Chase berth afloat?
"If I was 13th or 14th in points and hadn't won a race, I'd be trying to get up as far in the points score as I could to give yourself a buffer," Ambrose said. "But let's face it, if you can't win a race before the Chase, it's going to be hard for you to win the Chase anyway."
That seems like sound logic until you consider that Tony Stewart didn't claim a victory before the Chase in 2011 – and then won half of the 10-race playoff to win the championship.
There were few signs Stewart would flip the switch. A month before the Chase, he said his No. 14 Chevrolet didn't deserve a title berth, and a few days before the opener at Chicagoland Speedway, he picked a handful of favorites and didn't include himself.
Then he promptly won the first two races of the Chase and sprinted from also-ran to his third championship in less than three months.
With knockout rounds that could eliminate strong contenders, this year's Chase will be more conducive to a miracle comeback run such as Stewart's, and there are many who are in a similar position.
Kenseth has been trying to recapture the magic of 2013 (when he won a season-high seven times), but his No. 20 Camry needs more speed. Richard Childress Racing teammates Menard and Newman have reliable cars that lack horsepower. Biffle is treading water at struggling Roush Fenway Racing (which didn't post a top 10 at Michigan for the first time in 14 years).
Each probably will need a victory eventually for a championship. But they don't need it yet. There still is time for a turnaround in which making the Chase doesn't go through victory lane.
Yes, as Ambrose said, winning might seem like everything this season.
But it isn't the only thing.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @nateryan
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