Six months still remain before this revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup gives us a new, super-sized playoff field, and there are weeks to go beyond that before the format crowns its first champion. These days everything is in the preliminary stages, with drivers likely clinching berths -- five in as many weeks to start to the season -- through race victories, and those 16 spots on the grid slowly filling up one by one.
And yet, the benefits of this system are already evident, and have been since the night of the Daytona 500. As good as a win-to-get-in structure seemed in theory, it's been even better in practice, stoking furious action at the front of the field and prompting teams to take gambles that haven't always paid off. From the beginning of the season, the promise of this system has been evident. Now, it's been completely validated -- and by a driver who hasn't yet won a race.
Under virtually any previous championship system, the situation Denny Hamlin faced this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway would have been a near-calamity. In the era before the Chase, when drivers effectively had to start every race to keep their championship hopes intact, his season was finished the instant a doctor told him his vision issues precluded him from getting behind the wheel. Even under the most recent championship format, in which a driver had to maintain a position inside the top 20 to remain eligible for a Wild Card, any health issue was capable of placing title hopes in jeopardy.
We witnessed just that last season with the same driver, after Hamlin broke a bone in his back in a crash at the same Southern California race track, and missed four starts as a result. Now, that situation was far more serious than the current one, which according to Joe Gibbs Racing stemmed from a piece of metal doctors removed from the driver's eye. But in the context of maintaining championship eligibility, that difference has historically been negligible -- under previous formats any missed race has been a serious blow, the reason drivers once taped their swollen eyes open or affixed their broken arms to the steering wheel. The system demanded they carry on.
No more. For all the frenzied action this revised Chase system promises to produce, for all the desperate win-to-get-in scenarios certainly yet to unfold, this format's greatest asset may very well be its ability to allow a driver facing a health issue to step out of the race car without scuttling his or her entire season in the process. That is a great leap forward for the sport, and reason enough to laud this system regardless of the title race it ultimately produces. Those who pine for an outdated format that demands a driver be in the seat all 36 weeks of the season -- whether he's healthy enough to be there or not -- have zero moral high ground left to stand upon.
"It's actually a great thing," driver Greg Biffle said. "Now it gives you an opportunity, if you do have a medical issue or think you have a concussion or something else, you can sit out a race and your season's not gone. So that is one thing with the new points format that has allowed that to happen. ? I think it does create an opportunity that was kind of not there before, and probably wasn't even thought of until they came up with the format. All of the sudden, it was kind of a benefit."
It's more than that -- it's an overdue necessity in a sport where the element of risk is so high. Now, with Hamlin set to return to his No. 11 car this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the medical exemption element of this Chase format certainly works in his favor. It isn't a rubber stamp -- according to NASCAR, a driver can be excused from a race due to a valid medical condition and not have his or her Chase eligibility jeopardized. Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president for racing operations, said when the revamped Chase was unveiled that the sanctioning body would likely rely on medical professionals when faced with a decision over whether to grant a medical exemption. Drivers won't be allowed to take a weekend off just because they feel like it, and still hope to make the playoff.
"That was a question we automatically asked," said Biffle, speaking on a conference call to promote a children's dental program on behalf of primary car sponsor 3M. "I mean, if you go out on a limb and get bold and say, 'OK, I won at California, I don't really like Martinsville that well, I'm going to go ahead and take that week off and go on a family vacation.' That doesn't really work for still making the Chase."
Hamlin's situation, though, which entailed a trip to the hospital and a CT scan, appears to be a textbook example of just the kind of circumstance this system was designed to accommodate. When all was said and done Sunday in Fontana, Hamlin's points loss was a relatively small one; thanks in part to problems experienced by so many drivers ahead of him in the standings, he lost just four positions, falling from seventh to 11th. But he couldn't have known that going in. And under a previous championship format, with no such exception available to him, would he have been as honest about his condition? Thankfully, we didn't have to find out.
Of course, with Hamlin cleared by NASCAR to return to competition, his Chase hopes still hinge on his ability to qualify for the playoff, which now requires a top-30 points standing and likely a race victory. But the bottom line is, under this system he'll still have a chance, which couldn't have always been said before. It's one small solace in a situation that, for the driver involved, is fraught with anxieties that extend beyond physical health.
"I hate that for Denny, and I know he didn't want to have to miss that race, but you don't worry about the points," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said during an appearance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "You eventually look at the big picture and get to that point where you wonder how it affects you that way. But initially, you don't want to see somebody else drive your car. It's the weirdest thing, to have the race going on without you in it. It is the worst. It's a bad feeling. That really is the immediate impact that you feel."
Earnhardt would know, having missed two races late in the 2012 campaign due to the effects of a pair of concussions. The timing of that episode, with just six races remaining in the season, would have ended whatever title hopes Earnhardt harbored regardless of the playoff system he was competing under. Hamlin, though, appears to have time on his side -- as well as a revised Chase format that's having a beneficial impact well before the new champion is crowned.
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