Chase bubble boys: Just win, baby

Somebody is going to choke before the Chase. Not because he tried too hard but because he didn't try hard enough.

Trust me on this one. I've seen it too many times in my sports writing career.

Somebody is going to play not to lose, stop doing what he does best and end up blowing it.

I was in the press box that frigid day in Buffalo 18 years ago when the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot offense froze and stopped in the playoff game dubbed "The Mother of All Chokes," watching a 35-3 lead just after halftime become a 41-38 loss.

I will never forget that look of complete emptiness Oilers quarterback Warren Moon had on his face as he walked off the field that day.

And I still get a sinking feeling in my gut remembering that April night in 1983. My alma mater, my beloved Houston Cougars, the most talented college basketball team I'd ever seen, stopped playing their game and made Jim Valvano a legend and his North Carolina State guys heroes forever.

Houston did its Phi Slama Jama best (the moniker invented by my Houston Post colleague Tommy Bonk) and surged to a 43-35 lead in the second half, but then quit running and gunning.

"We should have kept playing the way we were playing," said UH forward Larry Micheaux afterward. "Our game is to get up and down the floor and dunk the ball."

But Lorenzo Charles had the dunk that mattered in the end for a 54-52 NC State upset, one of the most dramatic moments in college basketball history.

UH legend Clyde Drexler, who went on to NBA fame and a championship with the Rockets, lived it and still couldn't believe it.

It's almost 30 years later, and it still hurts me to think about it.

You might say these little snippets of my life have nothing to do with NASCAR or the race to the Chase. And you'd be wrong.

The message is clear. The lesson is easy to learn. Go for it. Take your best shot. Don't play it safe. Do your thing and take your chances.

With three races remaining before the Chase starts, it's now or never. Drive it like you stole it.

That's what this new wild-card format was designed to do -- make guys go for broke down the stretch before the Chase begins.

It's didn't happen Sunday at Michigan. Nothing changed.

Sure, some surprising things happened, such as Denny Hamlin finishing 35th and Carl Edwards finishing 36th. Ford didn't have a car among the top nine finishers.

Just plain weird. But when the race ended, not one thing had changed in the overall Chase picture.

The drivers who were inside the Chase cutoff before the race still were inside the 12-man playoff land when it was over.

That must be a fluke, right? Maybe, maybe not.

One would expect the competition for the two wild-card spots to get, well, wild.

If this were just racing for points to get in, things wouldn't look so hot. Tony Stewart, holding down the last point-qualifying spot in 10th, still is 24 points ahead of 11th-place Clint Bowyer.

That's a significant amount in the new points system when each spot is worth only one point. Bowyer finished eighth Sunday, but he left Michigan right where he started, one spot below the points cutoff. Stewart finished ninth, so Bowyer gained only one point on him.

"From where we started the race, 35th, getting inside the top 10 and running up there most of the second half of the race was great," Bowyer said afterward. "We just didn't gain enough points. That is the biggest problem. We gained, but not near enough. We're running out of time, but if we keep digging, who knows what is going to happen."

Here's what's going to happen, Clint: Play to win or don't get in.

Hamlin, who still holds the second wild-card position despite his miserable day at Michigan, is 18 points ahead of Paul Menard, the next driver in the standings with one win.

Time for a quick hallelujah. It isn't just about points. Just win, baby. That's the answer.

If Bowyer or Greg Biffle wins Saturday night at Bristol, the winner would jump into a playoff spot and push Hamlin out. They both rank ahead of Hamlin in the standings, so their one victory would trump his one win.

"We have to have a win to get in the Chase, that's obvious," Biffle said at Michigan.

If Menard or David Ragan wins at Bristol, he would be in and Hamlin out. Hamlin still might have more points, but one of those guys would have two victories to claim a wild-card berth.

Even winless AJ Allmendinger could claim a Chase spot with a win this weekend. He's three points behind Hamlin in the standings, but a victory would move him past Hamlin unless Hamlin finished second and led the most laps.

Also, Marcos Ambrose in 23rd could pass Hamlin with a win in the next three races, assuming Ambrose could move back into the top 20.

So here's the deal: For this playoff picture to get exciting, someone outside the lucky 12 needs to win one of the next three races. Get after it. Make something happen.

"Our focus now, even more so than before, shifts to getting the second win," Menard said at Michigan. "We are doing all we can to try and get that second win. We're throwing the dice on the table and seeing what we've got."

But some drivers and teams don't look at it that way. Hamlin and the No. 11 team opted to switch to Toyota Racing Development engines because they felt those motors have more reliability and less chance of a failure. They are playing it safe.

His problems at Michigan had nothing to do with the switch to TRD. However, his teammate Kyle Busch won the race with a Joe Gibbs Racing engine. A second win for Hamlin likely would secure his spot in the Chase.

Playing it safe is a bad idea. I'll say the same thing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth with a 30-point lead over Bowyer) and Stewart.

Don't play not to lose. It will burn you.

I've seen this so many times over the years in sports. A team has a lead, gets too conservative, changes its game and ends up watching the other team celebrate.

When asked what his plan was for getting in the Chase, Bowyer talked about trying to move into the top 10.

"Try as hard as we can and get every point as we possibly can,'' he said. "We've got to beat those guys."

Beating the driver ahead of him in the standings won't be enough. Bowyer needs to win.

They all need to win. Stay aggressive. That's how to get it done now.

But somebody will choke, not because he went all out but because he didn't. I've watched the horror of it and have seen the regrets.

So get a little crazy, guys. Drive that car like a mad man. Take a chance or lose your chance. Get in the Chase or go down swinging.

Moon and Drexler, two guys I know and love, two men who would give anything to go back to their moment of infamy and do it again differently, would tell you the same thing.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.