Unlike some traditionalists out there, I am thoroughly excited for the next reincarnation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With just two races to go before the start of the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, race fans are gearing up for the most exciting format of post-season racing in NASCAR history. In announcing the new format in January of 2014, Brian France and NASCAR took massive steps in breaking a paradigm that has too long splintered stock car racing from main stream sports in the United States.
At times, the old competition format seemed to defeat itself; it’s archaic and sometimes anticlimactic playoff system failed to reach a sporting fan base that thrives on elimination style, cut throat playoff competition. The average sports enthusiast struggled to find that second to second excitement, specifically late in the race season. But to its credit, NASCAR has perhaps been the most willing of all motorsport divisions to shed the traditional rules of past in an effort to broaden its market horizons. That willingness to adapt has helped NASCAR develop a modernized competition system, designed to spark the strongest competition between teams, and increase the excitement and drama of the fan experience.
One year ago, A.J. Allmendinger’s incredible Watkins Glen victory earlier this month would have been merely a first ever victory in an otherwise fruitless season. But today, the Dinger and JTG Daugherty Racing sit as one of twelve teams with a 2014 win, and a chase berth . In years past, it was enough for teams to clinch the chase on points, wins were at times supplemental to top 10 finishes. This season, the game has changed, and drivers like Allmendinger and Aric Almirola are proof that now, wins are more valuable than air.
With perennial chase stars like Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, and Matt Kenseth still searching for wins, the final two races will serve as pacemakers for a pool of drivers who simply cannot rely on points to get them to Chicagoland. While there will be at least two drivers clinching the chase on points, the frenzy for those opens spots will not be tailored around solid finishes. With 2 races to go, the likes of Kenseth and Kahne understand, winning is still the only guarantee. In recent years, fans have come to expect some lack luster racing in the season’s final two competitions- and certainly we may see a few clinchers ease off in the seasons closing weeks. However, with 30 some odd drivers still kicking at the prospect of a win, racing nights in Atlanta and Richmond will lack no luster as we head for the chase.
With the introduction of elimination rounds, NASCAR has implemented a playoff-style system that can and will produce some great race to race, round to round excitement. All points for teams in the chase will be reset entering the first race, with winners getting 3 bonus points for each regular season win. Bonus points are not awarded for chase wins.
The field will be narrowed from 16 by four drivers each round (every three races), with a win clinching an automatic berth to the next round. Points will be reset each round, making absolute safety in the chase only possible with round by round wins. The field thins through the first nine chase races, leaving us with the top four to race it out in what is sure to be a dog fight at Homestead Miami Speedway in November. Prior to 2014, we knew who and what to expect with few ‘X’ factors to consider; fans knew where to hedge their bets. In 2014, Brian France and NASCAR upped the ante, adding competitive elements that push our teams and drivers far deeper into the challenge for a championship than ever before.
Bringing out the best
There will always be those who believe the old way is better, and of course in some ways, to some people, it may be. And while the new format may be too infantile to value right now, the overwhelming benefits of these changes are evident each week. In changing its competition format, NASCAR has limited a team’s ability to navigate a season based on points alone, and made winning a hell-bent priority.
Even the change to knock-out qualifying has added an incredibly exciting element to traditionally monotonous pre-race weekend. The competition adaptation has produced some awe-inspiring driving this season, proving the stakes have never been higher for winless drivers in 2014. The nature of the 2014 format has brought out the absolute best in our drivers week in and week out. The proof will be in the pudding this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with only two races and four spots left in the chase, the likes of Bowyer, Kahne, Patrick, and a host of others will continue to race for their respective season lives Sunday night.
It would be difficult to argue that it hasn’t been a Penske/Hendrick dominated season, each producing multiple three-win drivers over the first 24 races this year. But the question remains whether or not regular season domination will translate into championship opportunities in the chase. For those spectators who are outside the racing fringe, that unpredictability breeds entertainment value.
The question has never been if NASCAR can expand its fan base, the question has always been ‘how’, how do we as a racing community bridge the gap between the die-hards and so-so’s. In an era where Charlotte cable affiliates choose to carry non-local pre-season football over Night Racing in Bristol, how do we bring that entertainment value to the millions who just do not realize it exists?
Brian France and NASCAR recognize the lengths they must travel to avoid market saturation and stagnation- even if those mechanisms rival the traditions of the sport. As this season winds to a close, it is impossible to deny the increased value of NASCAR’s 2014 product, and what it means for the future of the sport. The competition changes, combined with a new 10 year, 8 billion dollar television package, will all hopefully lead to an over-due expansion of NASCAR’s fan base and national media exposure.
One thing is for certain
One thing is certain, this chase will be an extraordinary punctuation to what has been a groundbreaking season for NASCAR. In less than three weeks, fans will be treated to an all-out, 9 race slugfest that leads us to what will be known as the biggest showdown in racing, Homestead Miami on November 16, 2014.