We're still two races away from seeing how the brand-new Chase format will fully play out in its first year of operation. There's no doubting that it has raised the level of intensity of the competition both on and off the race track, but are the shock premature exits of leading contenders such as Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. together with recurring post-race brawls on pit lane actually proving good for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?
Fans, pundits, drivers and team owners haven't been slow in giving their views on this year's revisions to the way that the championship play-offs are structured, and opinion has been split down the middle. Many see it as a welcome way of heightening the action and maintaining the excitement right down to the season finale; equally, many others see it as a load of witless gimmicks to entertain the masses akin to making the drivers wear clown shoes, bow ties and red noses.
Exactly how to structure a motorsports championship in such a way that it's both fair to the drivers and rewarding for the spectators has long been an issue in series all around the world, especially since the advent of television coverage. Formula 1's Bernie Ecclestone has spent the better part of the last decade trying to find a way to prevent one driver or team becoming so dominant that the titles are locked up well before the final race of the season. His idea for a system based on 'wins medals' never made it to fruition, but 2014 will instead see the apparently random and much derided bolt-on solution of a double points season finale at Abu Dhabi. It should keep the world championship battle between Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg going all the way to the chequered flag, but if the double points artificially hands the title to one driver over the other then it could seriously backfire on the sport's credibility.
That's the tightrope NASCAR also walks: finding a system that produces a worthy champion but at the same time doesn't allow the outcome to be predictable until the end of the final race of the season, to keep the fans on the edge of their seats right to the finish. Originally, the winner of the NASCAR championship was simply the driver with the most points at the end of the 36-race season; it was entirely possible therefore for a driver to build a big points lead at the start of the year and then nurse it all the way to the title by playing conservatively. It would become relatively clear mid-season who the few drivers were that were still in contention, and you could likely predict the ultimate champion a couple of months before the end of the season.
NASCAR changed this in 2004 with the introduction of the original Chase format, which effectively took the top 12 in the standings after 26 races and put them into a title play-off situation over the ten remaining events. With their points reset more-or-less evenly it meant that any big leads that any one driver or team had managed to pull out up to that point were effectively swept away and everyone would start again from a level playing field. At the end of the ten races, the driver with the most points from the play-offs would be the new champion.
For ten years, the Chase helped revitalise interest in the final two and a half months of the Sprint Cup season. But it wasn't perfect - drivers who had managed to win races earlier in the year could easily end up slipping out of the top 12 in the points before the Chase cut-off, for example, so there was a tweak to the qualifying format to allow for a wins 'wildcard'. But the biggest complaint was that the same person kept winning under the play-off system after Jimmie Johnson won six titles during the decade. He never missed the cut once and his worst finish was in 2011 when he came sixth, because when it came to the Chase he was the model of safe, reliable consistency that was the key to coming out top in the 'mini-season' model.
Partly that's thanks to Johnson's driving style suiting the tracks used for the Chase - NASCAR's system of using the same ten venues for the play-offs every year is arguably long overdue a rethink of its own, but scheduling and commercial considerations make this a thorny task. However Johnson's domination also pointed out that the Chase itself was becoming too safe and predictable again, and viewing figures were starting to trail off. Something needed to change, and so NASCAR CEO Brian France devised a radical new system for 2014 that has fundamentally turned the Chase format on its head.
To start with, the very process of qualifying for the Chase has been pulled inside out: instead of the focus being on points first with a couple of bonus wins wildcards, now it's all about who has won a regular-season race first and the points second. 16 rather than 12 drivers make it into the chase, but now instead of a ten race mini-season we get three sprints of three races each, after each of which the bottom four drivers are eliminated. By the season finale (invariably held at Homestead-Miami Speedway) only four drivers are left in contention, and the title will go to whichever one of the four finishes best. If three drivers are wiped out on the first lap and are classified 41st, 42nd and 43rd then all the remaining driver has to do is ensure he finishes in 40th place and the title is his.
The positive aspect to this new system is that it injects a series of cliffhangers into the final ten weeks: who will get eliminated at Dover? Who will crash out after Talladega? And who will fall at the final hurdle at Phoenix? It's impossible to know who will be in the final four until we reach Homestead, and the champion will be impossible to call until the chequered flag waves. Bernie Ecclestone would surely kill for such a system in F1.
But there's also a downside. Rather like the introduction of KERS and DRS in Grand Prix racing, all the new tweaks and features of the Chase can come across as artificial tampering with the pure art of motorsports purely to 'spice things up', aimed at those viewers who aren't real racing fans in the first place and therefore can't appreciate that going wheel-to-wheel at 200mph is already quite spiced up enough for genuine aficionados of the sport, thank you very much. The various stages of the Chase - given awkwardly gimmicky names like the Challenger 16, the Contender 12 and the Eliminator 8 - can certainly be difficult to explain every week and for fans to clearly grasp, and all those rapid cut-off races can be too much coming too fast, potentially allowing a sense of battle fatigue to creep in.
Perhaps the most serious argument against the new Chase would be if someone perceived as 'undeserving' of the title were to successfully game the system and come out with the championship. That's why there's been a lot of criticism of Ryan Newman of late, since he's now in second place in the Chase standings (behind co-leaders Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin) and yet he hasn't won a race all season, his best results being a brace of thirds at Kentucky and Martinsville. His striking run of consistency has nonetheless kept him in the Chase and makes him a good bet to reach the finale as well, whereas four-time race winners Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are already both out of the running and have no chance of being the 2014 champion. How fair is can this be? But in fact the prospect of big names and sure win favourites not making it through at any given stage is implicit in any championship model you can think of where the winner must be kept in doubt all the way to the final race, which is the Holy Grail as far as the organisers are concerned.
Actually almost any system you can think of can throw up such anomalies, even under the purest system of them all which awards the title to the driver with the most points at the end of 36 races: a driver finishing in second place all year (unlikely though that is!) would still beat someone who'd won 12 races, for example. Arguably that might suggest that what's needed is a revamp of the points system itself (the winner of a NASCAR Cup race gets 45 points while second gets 42, third is 41, etc.) but the counter problem here is that it you give too much of a bonus for winning a race over finishing second then one driver can quickly pull away and put the championship beyond doubt by the middle of the season (see also Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel in F1 in recent years.)
So maybe rather than points systems we should look instead toward Ecclestone's 'wins medals' proposal? If we did then the 2014 Sprint Cup championship would be down to a battle between Penske team mates Brad Keselowski (with six wins) and Joey Logano (with five). Depending on what tie-breaker system you bring in, Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon could all still be in the running with four wins each with the final two races to go; but Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and the rest would all certainly be out of the running by this point. If this were the case then Keselowski could easily put the title beyond doubt this weekend with a win at Phoenix.
Such a system certainly has its selling points: it's clear and simple to understand and would promote all-out-for-the-win on-track competition each and every week. But it could also still have the same old problem that one driver could effectively lock up the title early in the season and make the rest of the year a damp squib risking declining audience and spectator figures, exactly the reason why NASCAR introduced the Chase play-offs in the first place.
Ultimately any system has its strengths and its weaknesses. The current Chase might perhaps be somewhat over-engineered, but each of its features has been introduced by coming up with carefully-considered solutions to what hasn't worked (and what has) in earlier, simpler systems. Sometimes simple doesn't necessarily mean better or more pure, but equally a system that becomes too complex for people to readily understand can lack credibility. The perfect solution likely doesn't exist, so finding the right balance point is what matters: in informal Twitter polls it seems that the majority of people are in favour of some sort of play-off system, and that of the Chase systems available the new 2014 version is seen as an improvement over the old, but that overall opinion is still very split.
Of course, it shouldn't matter which system is used so long as all the drivers and teams competing for the championship know what's expected of them at any given stage. The NASCAR Sprint Cup field knew from the start what they would have to do to win this year's title, and if they don't pull it off then surely that's down to them - someone else will play the game better and get the due rewards for doing so, and rightly so. All that matters is whether the fans (both the die-hards and the casual viewers) feel that the person who ends up being crowned champion at the end of the season is a deserving one - and for the answer to that particular piece of the puzzle we have to wait for another week and a half until Homestead, after which the controversy about the success (or failure) of the 2014 Chase system will doubtless keep fans nicely heated up all through the winter off-season.
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+2) Joey Logano 4072pts
2. (+3) Denny Hamlin 4072pts
3. (-1) Ryan Newman 4070pts (-2pts)
4. (-3) Jeff Gordon 4060pts (-12pts)
5. (-1) Matt Kenseth 4059pts (-13pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4059pts (-13pts)
7. (--) Brad Keselowski 4055pts (-17pts)
8. (--) Kevin Harvick 4054pts (-18pts)
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