Posted: 10:58 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
By Jordan Bianchi
NASCAR’s new championship format has created no shortage of winners and losers with fans, officials and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (twice) all among those who find themselves on the list.
It's as radical a change as any NASCAR has made in its 65-year history. One that has polarized a fan base; some up in arms, outraged over the enormous shift in a long-standing philosophy, while others laud it for the game-changing possibilities that have been generated.
What has been rumored and debated for weeks was finally confirmed Thursday, as NASCAR has restructured its playoff format. Winning is essentially the end-all, be-all at the premium level of the sport. A regular season win now virtually ensures a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and a postseason win carries more importance than any other time previously.
When the changes initially surfaced they seemed far-reaching and too far a departure from the norm. No longer was the ability to be consistent on a weekly basis imperative to securing a championship. Instead, it was more important to win at all costs, everything else be dammed.
With time and analysis these feelings have subsided -- some. Yes, consistency is no longer as paramount as it once was, but as anyone who has followed NASCAR -- or any sport for that matter -- can attest, there is no lucking into a championship.
Winning a title requires obtaining a high-level of success not just once or twice, but continually. This will not change under the new modified Chase, as consistency will still have a place. But just as time has given a deeper perspective to some of the positives that this elimination, winner-take-all formula brings, it has also allowed a better understanding of some of its flaws. And with that, here is a look at some of the winners and losers of NASCAR's revised championship system.
At the Cup level the idea of a small, upstart team winning the title is not even a fantasy, it's delusion. In its current state this is not a sport designed to favor those without vast resources and deep pockets -- and even if often not suffice. Yes, Furniture Row Racing making the Chase last season was a great story, but the fact that it was the first single-car team to ever qualify in 10 years tells you all you need to know.
Now, however, the door has been further opened for a mid-pack outfit to compete for the championship. It's easier than ever to now qualify for the Chase: all a team has to do is win. And this is very doable as witness by the profusion of triumphs small organizations have recently pulled off including Front Row Motorsports (David Ragan), Richard Petty Motorsports (Marcos Ambrose), Wood Brothers Racing (Trevor Bayne) and Phoenix Racing (Brad Keselowski).
The cream will still inevitably rise as Keselowski succinctly stated on Twitter. But while Cinderella may not be alive and well, she at least now has a pulse.
With the spotlight transfixed on winning, and every race being crucial to a driver's postseason prospects, NASCAR's television partners will have no shortage of storylines to tout. Every week there will be drama and intrigue. Inescapably there will also be an increase in angry and irate drivers, all of which makes for TV gold. And make no mistake this Chase format was devised with television in mind, seen as a way to recapture a viewing audience that has shrunk substantially over the last few years.
Track owners and their marketing staffs
Is there a better way to sell tickets and put butts in seats than hyping a high-stakes race with so much riding on the line? The answer is no, and why track owners from Charlotte to Sonoma, Michigan to Texas are salivating at the newly created advertising possibilities.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Few drivers have been as consistent recently as Earnhardt, and though it has been diminished some, don't discount its importance. In fact, while he may not have visited Victory Lane in 2013, using the current formula -- granted the variables would have changed considerably -- NASCAR's most popular driver would have won the championship a year ago.
He may not win frequently enough, but the probability of 15 different winners emerging during the regular season is remote. Which means Earnhardt's knack of accumulating points is still valued, and in all likelihood a way for him to lockup another Chase berth.
Already hard-pressed to prevent teams conspiring to manipulate the outcome, the job of officials just became exceptionally more difficult. Going forward anytime teammates pass one another for the lead race control will have to evaluate and rule whether there were machinations involved. Expect plenty of second-guessing, innuendo and conspiracy theories to abound.
As an example, in September during race No. 2 of the Chase at New Hampshire, teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished first and second. But with Kenseth already having won a Chase race the week before and a lock to advance to the next round, imagine the suspiciousness had Busch passed him in the closing laps for the win, which would have then ensured two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers a spot in second round?
The challenge for officials in this situation would be to decipher whether Busch made a clean pass for the lead, or if Kenseth understanding the situation simply slowed his pace to give his teammate the advantage. NASCAR already has too many arbitrary rulings, and to be forthright, its track-record in this area over the years is spotty at best.
As NASCAR boomed and expanded its national presence it did so at the expense of the hardcore fan. These folks grew weary of the continued changes sweeping the sport. Gone were once revered tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. Then there was the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, which had little resemblance to a stock-car.
Thursday's announcement of how NASCAR will crown its champion could be the tipping point. That moment where an increasingly diminished segment of fans realize the sport they once loved has evolved into a different product altogether; one they no longer enjoy.
It would seem that with its annual fall event assured of being the race where the championship is decided would be an overwhelming positive for the 1.5-mile oval that routinely produces great action and a fitting conclusion to the year. And it undoubtedly is.
However, with Thursday's seismic news there is a groundswell of support that NASCAR should rotate the season finale among a variety of tracks. It was suggested by myriad a driver that to further level the playing field, no one venue should regularly have such an importance where a driver could gleam a decided advantage over the competition. Although a notion dismissed by France, one gets the sense that before too long this will in fact become reality and Homestead will lose its prized date.
On the strength of unflinching excellence and dogged consistency no one has used the Chase more to their favor than Johnson. Yeah, he will surely adjust and Chad Knaus will likely mastermind some profound strategy to game the system. Nevertheless, is if Johnson is to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt's record of seven championships, he's going to have to become a predator at Homestead, a track where he's winless and doesn't play to the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In a format where winning is just about everything doesn't bode well for a driver who has just three victories in the previous nine years.