After seven races, the young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now well underway. The level of competition has proven to have been dramatically improved from a 2013 season in which NASCAR received much criticism for a lack of passing.
This year, there has been only one race which has had fewer passes for the top position compared to last year, and that race was Las Vegas with one less pass for the lead this year. Clearly, NASCAR's new aero package is working well. However, NASCAR wants parity, and they have that. But something is missing, and that is the reward for consistency - something that helped a driver win championships until this season.
Last season, there were seven winners throughout the first 10 races. However, it was not so much easier for a driver to dominate a race, but a car simply had a lot more speed at the front of the pack over racing for position which was a part of why there was a lack of passing.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, currently leads the points standings. It is the first time that Gordon has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings since the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 - 174 races ago.
NASCAR plans on awarding victories once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in September. However, just for the sake of an argument - what the heck happens if Gordon has a giant points lead with limited finishes outside of the top-10, but he has no wins? He would make the Chase, yes, but he would be put back a drop because he wouldn't have any bonus points from wins.
Fortunately, NASCAR's new championship format will actually benefit Gordon, or any other driver that is high in points, if they were not to have any wins at the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond.
What NASCAR has done is actually great for the sport. A playoff based system that is being compared to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, or several other major sport's playoff formats for that matter, has entered NASCAR. If a driver finishes very well (without winning) during the multiple elimination rounds - a driver can win the championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, would have edged out their partner in crime, Jimmie Johnson, last season if this new system were in place. NASCAR has aimed for awarding drivers for wins, and that they are doing, but consistency still plays a factor. However, as long as a driver such as Gordon continues to run up front, they will get a win.
Through the first seven races this season, Gordon has five top-10 finishes, and no finish worse than 13th at Auto Club Speedway. He is showing everyone that even though NASCAR wants drivers to have wins to get into the Chase, there will likely be a handful of slots open to drivers that do not have wins. Having the points lead, or being within the top-10 at Richmond without a win should lock a driver into the Chase.
By then, most of the top-10 in points should have wins. However, there will be a few exceptions to that such as in 2013 where Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Gordon did not have any wins come Richmond, but were high enough in points to continue on - competing for the championship in NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
Gordon has been extremely close to winning a race this year. He finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Texas due to a risky move by his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and has led 67 laps to begin the year. Although there is room for improvement (as there always is in any sport), Gordon is extremely close to scoring his 89th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.