Win and you're in.
When NASCAR CEO Brian France introduced a new Chase format before the start of the season it was met with a good deal of skepticism, as fans not only had questions about it, but they also questioned why make the changes in the first place.
For many longtime fans, it was seen as another attempt to reshape a sport that had seen too many changes in the previous decade. It had become less simple for a large segment of NASCAR’s traditional fanbase, while it became more appealing to a younger and hopefully upscale audience.
But after last season’s scandal and the continuing specter of having a champion without a win, NASCAR execs had to make a change.
The competitors already knew what was coming back in January when the changes were first announced, so there was little in way of a reaction from them at the time. However, since then, there’s been plenty of reaction, much of it positive.
Now that the 2014 regular season is at the halfway point, it’s time to take stock of how the new rules have changed the look of the Chase lineup and how it’s changed the competition.
The most noticeable change is “Win and You’re In,” which has become the mantra in the Cup garage. When the new Chase format was introduced, NASCAR officials increased the field to 16, up from what was a field of 10, which then became 12 (or maybe 13). OK, so last part is a shot at how the Chase ended up last year. That was a bit of a fiasco in itself, some of which led to the changes.
Winning has taken on a whole new meaning, as drivers and crew chiefs alike are much more likely to gamble and take risks in order to win. And we’re not just talking about fuel mileage. We’re talking about tire strategy, aggressive car setups and drivers making bold moves in the final laps that we’d often thought had gone from the sport.
After the first seven races this year, 16 looked like it may have been too low a number. There were eight different winners. But while media talking heads delighted in finding a possible fault in the new system, NASCAR had seen this before. With more than half a century of data at their disposal, though, they knew that 16 was a good number.
And that still stands as we head to Pocono this weekend.
This graphic from NASCAR.com shows who is in as of Dover.
There are 10 drivers that have won races, and in truth, none of them was a gimme—even Hamlin’s win at Talladega, where it was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time. So whether your win came because the race leader cut a tire, made a mistake on pit road (or you made a mistake on pit road and lost), you took two tires instead of four or your team ran you out of fuel (oops!), the new rules were designed to bring intrigue to the Chase format.
NASCAR wanted to make the championship more entertaining for the fans—by making it more of a mirror image of stick-and-ball title runs—and they've succeeded in doing that. They also leveled the playing field for the entire Cup garage by offering everyone a shot at the Chase, no matter how bad a season they had. That meant if you were Casey Mears or David Gilliland or even Alex Bowman, if you were at the front when the rains came, or the cautions fell in your favor and you were the first to the checkered flag…
You were in the Chase.
Right now, the drivers and teams just outside the 16th spot in points are feeling the pressure to make a win happen—Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger (17 through 20, respectively) and Tony Stewart in 21st.
From now until Richmond, there is no rest, no relaxation, because no matter what kind of season you were having, even a “we finished 28th again” kind of season, if circumstances had you taking the checkered flag first—well, you were in the Chase!
This is a huge benefit for the teams that run in the middle to the back of the field and believed that once the Chase began, they essentially disappeared from the television broadcast—which was true. So what the new rules did was give everyone a shot at stardom.
We all remember David Ragan’s Talladega win.
Knockout qualifying, another new twist to the Sprint Cup Series, was long overdue and has taken what was the worst show in all of racing—single car NASCAR qualifying sessions—and made them must-see television on Friday or Saturday afternoons, whenever they took place.
Unfortunately, with this new format, some of the teams that sparkle on Friday, don’t translate that speed into success on race day. To be honest, it can be hard to judge a team by how they do in qualifying, even now, because some teams are focused on race day. If their qualifying setup gets them a good starting spot and a good place on pit road, so be it.
But at some race tracks, qualifying is critical. Yet there are several teams that continue to disappoint on race day following an impressive qualifying performance.
The race at Pocono Raceway this weekend is the start of the critical stretch of 13 races before the Chase begins. That means 13 chances for stardom. There are two road courses (Sonoma and Watkins Glen) that give drivers like Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger, whose NASCAR wins have come on road courses, a chance at the Chase.
And there’s a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and a short track (Bristol) for those drivers that feel they have an advantage on those tracks.
The new Chase rules have made it so that on Friday morning, when the Cup garage opens up, everybody can come to work with the knowledge that before the weekend is over, if they work hard and give their driver their all—and that includes a car that can take them right to the edge and all the way to the checkers—the reward can be a trip to postseason play.
A win never meant so much in NASCAR.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Next week, a prediction of the Chase field, as things stand now.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis