Wednesday, Feb 01

Emphasis on winning is hallmark of new NASCAR Chase format

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, Jan 31 1911

The credo first spoken by UCLA football coach Red Sanders and later made famous by Vince Lombardi would have been an apt turn of phrase for NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France:

"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

In announcing sweeping changes to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on Thursday, France unveiled a system that makes winning paramount in a way no simple addition of points for victories could have accomplished.

Win one of the first 26 races on the Sprint Cup schedule, and you're all but guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Keep winning in the Chase, and likely you'll advance to a one-race shootout between four eligible drivers for the series championship.

Win that race—or finish ahead of the three other eligible drivers—and you're the champion.

"It's all about winning in the postseason," six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson posted to his Twitter account after the announcement. "We've been decent at that over the years.

That's an understatement. Anyone who thinks NASCAR is trying to "Jimmie-proof" its championship—in much the same way Augusta National supposedly tried to "Tiger-proof" the Masters by lengthening the golf course—hasn't been paying attention to the numbers.

Johnson is the only driver qualified for all 10 editions of the Chase so far, and he's won far more races during the Chase than anyone else. All told, 24 of the 100 Chase races run so far have ended with Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Victory Lane, a staggering statistic.

Under the new format, which is divided into three elimination rounds of three races each to winnow the Chase field from 16 drivers to four for the final race, a victory is a golden ticket to the next round. Do you really think Johnson doesn't like his chances to win a record-tying seventh title?

"I like the higher emphasis on winning and the cream will still rise...," tweeted 2012 champion Brad Keselowski.

NASCAR Executive Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell conceded that some fans might believe the new format is directed at Johnson, but the numbers suggest otherwise.

"I can't get in the fans' heads, but I can say there is speculation: 'You do this because of Jimmie,'" O'Donnell said in a question-and-answer session with reporters after the announcement. "No, Jimmie performs. We fully expect Jimmie to dominate again.

"Jimmie has been a champion of NASCAR. You heard Brian say you've got to beat the best of the best in the Chase. If you look back at Jimmie's history, I think we'd be surprised if he wasn't there in Miami."

Several reporters in the media workroom at the Charlotte Convention Center spent Thursday afternoon concocting doomsday scenarios that ranged from the unlikely to the outlandish.

What if a driver with no victories won the championship? Though highly unlikely, that could happen under the new system, just as it could happen under the old one.

What if rain washes out qualifying at Homestead, putting all four championship contenders on the front row? And what if they all wreck in the first corner of the race?

Let's get real here. All systems and all sports have these sorts of scenarios. A perfect example is the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

In late August, the Cardinals were 10 games back—of the wild card spot. In Las Vegas, the posted odds against the Cardinals winning the World Series were 5,000-to-1.

But the Cardinals made up the deficit, qualified for the playoffs as wild card on the last day of the regular season, survived two elimination rounds and won the World Series.

Unexpected? Definitely.

Undeserving? Hardly.

Yes, the new Chase format could produce an unexpected winner, but in order to win the title, the champion must first make the Chase (with winning a race the most certain avenue), then survive three eliminations and beat the three remaining drivers in a winner-take-all finale.

"Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @SprintCup," tweeted four-time champ Jeff Gordon, "but wow just became THE way to win championship! Exciting!"

It's particularly exciting for teams that aren't perennial frontrunners. The addition of four drivers to the Chase field and the high likelihood of qualifying for the Chase by winning one of the first 26 races, allows teams to concentrate on their strengths.

Tony Gibson, Danica Patrick's crew chief, said the No. 10 will intensify its focus on Daytona and Talladega, restrictor-plate superspeedways where Patrick feels she has the best chance of winning.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer allowed that there is no more clear favorite at any other track than his driver, Marcos Ambrose, is at Watkins Glen, where the road course ace triumphed in 2011 and 2012.

Immediately after the announcement, track owners rallied in support of a system that will give fans a higher incentive to attend races.

Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond International Raceway, host track for the final race of the regular season, summed it up.

"There's always been a feeling of electricity in the air during the 'One Last Race to Make The Chase' weekend at Richmond International Raceway, when everyone is talking about winning and being in a position to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup," Bickmeier said.

"The new changes to NASCAR's playoff system will now bring that feeling of excitement to all the races by putting the focus on winning every single week."

As France said in his remarks on Thursday, the changes to the Chase format, which incorporated input from fans and all key stakeholders in the industry, were not an attempt to emulate other sports as much as they were to meet the changing needs and desires of the stock car racing audience.

"This is unique to us," France said. "Everybody has their own version. College basketball has a tournament, somebody else has a playoff system, somebody else has a multiple-game series. This is unique to us. It captures some of the similarities, naturally, but it's very unique to us.

"Those four teams who make it to Homestead Miami will still have a full field of race cars to maneuver around, contend with. That's part of winning it. You've got to beat everybody and then some. ... As I say, it elevates this championship at every event in a way that's never been possible for us."

Or, as Keselowski put it, in a tweet to a fan who had reservations about the new system:

"Look around you. The world is changing, and so, too, are what fans want/expect out of sports. So must auto racing to survive."


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