“Win and you’re in”.
Now, I’m not one to hold someone to every little word they’ve uttered (you should look to the esteemed ex-Mrs. Bloomquist for that trait) but when you’re the Chairman of an entire sport giving a press conference about one of the biggest format changes in history, phrasing should be considered. Especially when tape recorders are rolling.
There was to be no doubt when over a year ago, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR Brian France told everyone the new and improved Chase/playoff format would be one of the sport’s most exciting changes. Not only were fans told winning races were going to be the method to get a driver to the coveted championship, they were led to believe this would be the most clear-cut season to determine a champion.
Like most fool-proof systems, the new Chase format would have held true to all it had been hyped to be. Yet, as in most of life, there was an x factor that screwed the perfect system up. Enter driver Ryan Newman.
Newman, although finishing consistently throughout the season, won just as many NASCAR races as I did this past season. Zero. In fact, his highest finishing spot this year was today at the final race in Homestead, Florida, where Newman snagged the second spot.
Earlier in the week via USA Today France tried to downplay Newman being in the “final four” drivers able to capture the championship in the final race.
“There ought to be room for teams that do it every week and can be consistent,” he said. “I don’t care how you do it, frankly, but if you get through into the finale on Sunday and then you beat those three teams, that will be an achievement for anybody.”
Yet, France did care about it and said so before the 2014 season began. Winning was first and foremost, not consistency. And it wasn’t just France. NASCAR President Mike Helton said the same. As did several car owners such as Rick Hendrick. The Chase playoff format would crown and reward a driver that consistently won races. Not points. As NASCAR has been prone to do, a new set of rules that started out crystal clear became a bit hazy once things started to, shall we say, not headed in the direction NASCAR wanted them to.
The heart of this matter is exactly why stands are clearing out. NASCAR keeps saying that they want to “give fans what they’re asking for”, but what fans get is more behind the scenes politics, games and opportunities for the teams that spend the most money.
Luckily for the NASCAR brass hats, Kevin Harvick of Stewart/Haas Racing came away with the top prize in the sport, although there must have been plenty of sweaty pits (sure, pun intended) up in the royalty booth where France and pals were seated. Had Ryan Newman finished ahead of the other three eligible Chase contenders, the NASCAR apocalypse would have been set in motion, more than likely prompting a slight modification to the format. Slight, as in back to the drawing board. Fans on social media had already made clear if Newman won, the new format would have seemed like a fraud. Win and you’re in, unless it’s the driver that didn’t win all season. We can’t explain why he’s here.
I’ve met Ryan Newman. I like Ryan Newman. To have a win less driver in the final four eligible to win the championship, in a format that emphasizes winning, is lunacy. So, NASCAR is off the hook in their own eyes, once again. Sorry, race fans. According to your sport, this is what you want.
The one thing that could be said of today’s finale is Kevin Harvick did deserve his crown. Harvick won and finished consistently, finally taking his place among prior champions.
So, what can fans expect before the season comes roaring back to Daytona in February? Small changes. The new Chase format was however strange, a success in NASCAR’s eyes. What may have a profound impact is that none of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers were in the final round. Since Hendrick teams have no trouble bending the rule book from time to time, fans can certainly expect next season to have “minor changes” fall in favor of the car owner the sport values most. Even France himself admitted once “how goes the season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., so goes the season for NASCAR”. However, we’ll leave that drama for next season.
For now, NASCAR apocalypse averted. Kevin Harvick is the 2014 champion. Long live the king, until at least February.