Mark Story: I'm coming around on NASCAR's new Sprint Cup championship format

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 25, 2014 

NASCAR Michigan Auto Racing

Driver Matt Kenseth is not a fan of NASCAR's new championship format.

BOB BRODBECK — AP

  • NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway

    Thursday: Truck Series UNOH 225, 8 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

    Friday: Nationwide Series John R. Elliott HERO Campaign 300, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Saturday: Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

In NASCAR, 2014 will go down as the dawn of the "win and you are in" era.

Before the current Sprint Cup season began, NASCAR enacted what USA Today termed "radical changes" in how it picked its season champion.

Last year, the 12 drivers who ranked highest in season points advanced to The Chase for the Sprint Cup. After the points were reset at the start of the "playoffs," the driver who scored the most cumulative points over the final 10 races was the champion.

This year, a full-time driver who wins a race is assured (pretty much) of making The Chase. Only if fewer than 16 different drivers earn a win over the first 26 races do the season points much come into play.

Once NASCAR's playoff begins, there will be a series of three-race elimination rounds narrowing the 16-driver field by four each time. Any race win will automatically advance a driver to the next round.

By the final race, you will have four drivers alive and the championship will go to the person who finishes highest in that one race.

With the Cup Series coming to Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night's fourth running of the Quaker State 400, it seemed a good time to check in on how the new points system is being received.

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition and a former crew chief for drivers such as Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, said he believes the new emphasis on winning races "has totally changed the culture in our sport.

"What I hear from my friends with the race teams is that on Mondays and Tuesdays (after races), points never come up now," Pemberton said. "It's all about, 'What can we do to win?'"

Among the drivers, not shockingly, the reception seemed to vary based on whether the individual is being helped or hurt by the new system.

Matt Kenseth, the defending Quaker State 400 champion, won seven races last year. This season, the No. 20 Toyota has yet to find victory lane even though Kenseth is fourth in the traditional season points. (So far, only 10 different drivers have at least one win, so points may yet get Kenseth to The Chase even if he doesn't win.)

Asked if he liked the new format, Kenseth said "my answer is usually not the popular one, but I really don't."

Conversely, Joey Logano stands seventh in the points but has two wins. Under the old system, he'd be in pretty good shape. Under the new format, he's locked into The Chase.

"I like it," Logano said. "Winning races should be what this sport is about. I think when we get into The Chase, when you have those three-race knockout rounds, I think that will be really exciting for the fans."

Martin Truex Jr. is 25th in the points. Under the traditional system, "we'd be working on next year," he said. Under win-and-you-are-in, "there's still hope for us this year," Truex Jr. said.

Mark Simendinger, the Kentucky Speedway general manager, says track promoters "love this new format. Fans want to come to the track knowing they will see guys go all out to win."

Part of what bothers him about the new format, Kenseth says, is the suggestion that drivers were not going all out to win before.

"This is the top division of stock-car racing in the world, and you want to win every race, whether it pays a dollar or a million dollars, whether it pays one point or locks you into The Chase," he said. "So I think (the new format) rewards the winners differently, but I really don't feel like it changes how you race."

When NASCAR CEO Brian France announced the changes, I was lukewarm. More emphasis on winning is something Sprint Cup has long needed, but this is the fourth time NASCAR has altered how the season champion is determined since 2004 and that is too much tinkering.

The idea of determining the season champion off one race seemed contrived to me, too.

I have to say, however, I've come around on the new format. I think once The Chase starts, the series of eliminations will be far more dramatic than the previous 10-race battle usually was.

The fact that under-funded teams and drivers who are road-course (Marcos Ambrose) and/or restrictor-plate specialists (Danica Patrick?) now have a shot to make The Chase with one victory I also find appealing.

One race determining the season champ still bothers me, but NASCAR's Pemberton notes that other major sports have expanded their playoffs and that few seemed upset when the New York Giants won the Super Bowl as a wild card after both the 2007 and 2011 NFL seasons.

"The Giants seem to have that ability to rise to the occasion," Pemberton said. "Is it possible that a (driver) with two race wins runs better (in the final race) and wins the championship over a guy with eight or nine (wins)? Sure, but that's a driver and a race team rising to the occasion, just like the Giants."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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