DAYTONA BEACH — Denny Hamlin wasn't sure how to feel after Sunday's Daytona 500.
He had overcome a malfunctioning radio in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and ended a strong Speedweeks with a runnerup finish after six straight runs outside the top 10 at restrictor-plate tracks. He even left Daytona International Speedway second in points.
"Any other year I probably would have been like jumping up and down," Hamlin said.
But this wasn't any other year. NASCAR's new Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship puts a bigger premium than ever on winning races, and Hamlin finished behind two-time 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The revamped postseason format all but guarantees winners a spot in the Chase and seems to have ended the days of drivers being satisfied with a clean car and a top-10 finish.
"Points days don't mean anything anymore," said Brad Keselowski, who was third in his No. 2 Ford. "That's the great thing about this format. There is no good points day, as far as I'm concerned. What matters is a win, especially when you come to Daytona."
Whether it was the new format or the primetime restart on the sport's biggest stage, the 500 featured more action than last year, when drivers had problems passing on the inside in the new Gen-6 cars.
Sunday's race had 18 different leaders — tied for third-most in the "Great American Race" since 2002. It also included 42 lead changes. That's tied for the third-most in the past three decades of the 500. Ten lead changes occurred in the final 50 laps.
"I don't know what you guys saw, but I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting," said Keselowski, the 2012 series champion. "That has to be the hardest 500 race ever, probably one of the best.
"You look at this rules package, the way the cars ran (Sunday). You could run the bottom, the top, the middle. At one point in the race, handling started to come into play and skill level really showed up from a driver's perspective."
Earnhardt said the racing was so intense that he had to push his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, toward the fence at times to keep him from side-drafting past his No. 88 Chevrolet.
"I hate to do that to my teammate," Earnhardt said. "I hate to do that to anybody, but that's what it took. That's what you had to do."
The payoff came at the end, with Earnhardt's 20th checkered flag.
NASCAR also stands to benefit in the coming weeks. Because its most popular driver is a near-lock for his fourth consecutive postseason appearance, Earnhardt can push hard every race without worrying about a wreck ruining his points.
"I think once you have won one, it gives you an opportunity to really take borderline ridiculous chances," said Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte. "It really does. If there's a slim chance, that's all the chance you need."
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.