As it sold the latest changes to the Sprint Cup Series format on Thursday, NASCAR leaned heavily on a winning crutch.
The key points of the new Chase format:
• The field is expanded from 12 to 16 drivers. All drivers with a win in the first 26 races and the highest-ranking winless drivers will fill out the 16-driver field. At the beginning of the Chase, each driver will have his or her points reset to 2,000. Three bonus points will be added for each win in the first 26 races.
• The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup now contains eliminations. After the first three races, the bottom four drivers will be eliminated. Then after the next three, the next lowest four are eliminated from title contention. Following the ninth race of the season, the top four drivers will go into Homestead on level points standing. The highest finishing driver wins the title.
• If a driver wins a race in a three-race segment, he or she automatically advances to the next three-race segment in the Chase.
• To be eligible for the Chase, a driver must be in the top 30 in points and attempt to qualify for all 26 races before the Chase. However, NASCAR left a provision open for drivers forced to miss races because of medical reasons. We'll found out if and how that provision will be executed when the time arises.
After all, with wins greatly enhancing a driver's odds of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series and a winner-take-all race at Homestead, you'd think that the ultimate golden ticket is a trip to victory lane.
Not so. In its release, NASCAR touted that a win in the first 26 races of the season now "all but guarantees" a driver into the Chase. That ambivalent language says nothing, as the sanctioning body is clinging to the sliver of hope that 17 or more drivers will win a race in those 26 races.
In the 10 years of the Chase format, it's never happened. The highest number of drivers to win a race before the Chase came in 2012, when 14 different drivers won a race. Every other year, between 10-13 drivers have won a race before the Chase began.
That's why this statement from Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith is laughable at best, and, quite bluntly, incorrect.
"With NASCAR's changes to the point system, I think we can safely say points racing is dead," Smith said in a track release timed minutes after NASCAR's announcement. "When it comes to race day, winning is the only thing that matters -- period. The new system gives the drivers just 26 chances for only 16 spots in the Chase. That makes every single race critical. I think the changes are probably the best thing to happen in NASCAR in the last 10 years and I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing how the increased incentive to win plays out on race day."
No, points racing is not dead. Far from it. Accumulating the most points throughout a given time-frame is still the most important part of racing for a championship in NASCAR.
Since there is an exceeding likelihood that the Chase field will not be filled out exclusively by race-winning drivers, the other spots will be filled by the highest-ranking drivers without wins. Or, in very simple and crude terms, the best "points-racing" drivers of the season. If a driver doesn't win but piles up top-10 finishes throughout the first 26 races and is fifth in the standings, congratulations. He's likely in the Chase.
Besides, drivers aren't simply racing for 7th and 8th place finishes anyway. Kyle Busch said that best on Thursday before the announcement was made by NASCAR, indirectly citing the "100 percent" rule NASCAR implemented before the Chase last season after race manipulation penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing.
"You've got NASCAR telling you 'Well, everyone is going to race differently with this new format,'" Busch said. "We race 100 percent every single race that we're out there. We try to win every single week. If you can tell me that we don't want to win every single Chase race throughout the Chase, you're kidding yourself. It fries me that NASCAR in itself can tell you that you don't race hard every week."
Like Busch said, teams are racing hard every week. Heck, they're mandated to. Sometimes the track and the aerodynamics of the cars can make the single-file racing that has become all-too-common look like drivers aren't giving it their best effort. It's simply a culmination of how the sport has progressed as team budgets have expanded to include the best aerodynamic testing and engineering.
And what's the next best method to advancing throughout the Chase if a driver doesn't win a race in a given three-race segment? You got it, it's "points-racing." While winning is now a safety valve, points accumulation in a given time-frame is still vital. Heck, under this system last season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been the 2013 champion. Junior didn't win a single race.
Of course, in admitting the winless-scenario champion would have happened in 2013, NASCAR said that it feels drivers would have raced differently. But is that another realistic expectation moving forward?
NASCAR President Brian France teased the possibility of late-race contact at Homestead between drivers racing for the championship. The comments subtly reemphasizing the "game seven" feel that has been synonymous with his view for the Chase ever since he brought up a defining scenario a few years ago. However, with the Chase hanging in the balance in the waning laps at Homestead previously, we have seen very little of the sort.
Maybe it's the aerodynamics, maybe it's a driver code of conduct. Why would drivers act any differently? The ultimate goal hasn't changed, the way that NASCAR determines its winner has.
It's why -- barring any miraculous advancement in the raceability of the cars throughout the season -- you shouldn't see any stark change in the Sprint Cup Series from 2013 to 2014. Sure, the package may be wrapped so extravagantly that it may catch more people's eyes, but once you open it up you'll see that the same contents are there. The presentation can be only dressed up so much before people realize it's the same thing.
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