NASCAR's new Chase format is working out just as they hoped it would, but perhaps, it's working out too well.
The Eliminator 8 round in the Chase for the Championship has upped the intensity among the remaining contenders. After Martinsville, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick found themselves in a deficit heading into Texas Motor Speedway.
The 1.5-mile oval was the sight of not only six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s 70th win, but the most dramatic post-race scuffle of the season between two of NASCAR’s best.
It all began with a green-white-checkered finish with Jeff Gordon, going for the win and an opportunity to advance in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At the other end of the spectrum, we had a desperate Keselowski, who was running in third place at the time. Johnson restarted alongside Gordon and had Keselowski on his bumper. On the restart, Keselowski went for it ... Here's what happened next.
It was after the race that things got 'interesting' though.
As Keselowski parked his Miller Lite Ford, Gordon pulled his No. 24 Drive2EndHunger Chevrolet alongside. Crew members from each team began to shove each other around. After what felt like an eternity, Gordon exited his No. 24, ready to confront the Michigan native.
A group swarmed around them as the scene became electric. Harvick rested himself along the rear spoiler of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford. A war of words was exchanged and as the 2012 champion began to retreat the confrontation, Harvick pushed Keselowski back into the mix and said “fight your own battles.” The push started a brawl among crews as Gordon got his hands on Keselowski. In the chaos, Harvick moved away and watched the fireworks. Both drivers where left beaten and bloodied.
NASCAR is getting what they wanted
After the dust settled and the teams were separated, it all became crystal clear ... The new Chase for the Championship format is working.
The second race in both rounds two and three of the Chase have provided post-race drama that will live forever in NASCAR lore. Coincidentally, both of those clashes were at 1.5-mile tracks. Charlotte, and now Texas.
The points table heading to PIR
The most aggressive drivers have now found themselves on the outside looking in with only one more race to decide who moves on to fight for the championship. Just by staying out of the way, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Newman have found themselves in fair shape entering Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday. Gordon sits in fourth, but only one point ahead of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Keselowski and Harvick will have to fight from the back-end of the Eliminator Eight, trailing by five and six points respectively.
What if Texas was the final race?
Many racers have admitted that they would wreck their grandmother to win a race. What in the world do you think they would do to win a championship?
With this new format, the champion could just as well be celebrating in the NASCAR hauler instead of the frontstretch at Homestead-Miami Speedway, or worse, the infield care center.
If the AAA Texas 500 were the final race of the season and we just witnessed Gordon lose the title after contact with Keselowski, there would have been no words, no NASCAR calming Gordon down. There would have simply been a fight that could of gone on a lot longer, and become a lot bloodier.
Everyone is at each other's throats
Harvick has vowed to not let Kenseth win the championship, Keselowski is shoving his way to the front at the expense of his competitors (and his repuation). There are no allies in this championship. Every single team and every single driver is putting it all out on the line for their shot at glory. Of the remaining eight competitors, only three have won a title ... Gordon, Kenseth, and Keselowski. For the other five, they feel that this is their moment to secure a spot in NASCAR immortality.
The price they could pay
This new format is intense, and it is working greatly to provide fans with some of the pure emotion of the sport, but it could be working too well. If we continue down this path of intense pressure and stress on the drivers, it could turn ugly.
See the 2013 Auto Club 400 for an example of a feud going way too far. What happens if an angry Keselowski inflicts a career-ending injury to Gordon during an accident, as they claw their way towards the championship? It would destroy everything the powers that be have been trying to build with this format and cast a dark shadow over the sport.
NASCAR wanted stressed out drivers, now let's hope they don't end up with drivers on stretchers as a result.
Joey Barnes is the co-founder of Tribute Racing and a contributor to Motorsport.com