Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: NASCAR 'fight club' aside, new Chase format has been a plus for racing

Kevin Harvick, left, played with his son, Keelan, in the garage on Saturday. Harvick, who has four wins and 19 top-10 finishes this season, is one of four drivers left with championship hopes.
Kevin Harvick, left, played with his son, Keelan, in the garage on Saturday. Harvick, who has four wins and 19 top-10 finishes this season, is one of four drivers left with championship hopes. AP

He will not be the 2014 Sprint Cup champion, but Brad Keselowski has been the face — in one case, the swollen face — of NASCAR's new championship format. To date, the two most memorable moments of NASCAR's "Chase Grid" playoffs have been post-race confrontations involving Keselowski.

The first saw the normally unflappable Matt Kenseth chasing down "Bad Brad" on foot and putting him in a head lock at Charlotte.

Even more memorable, an enraged Jeff Gordon tried to confront Keselowski after the race at Texas, only to see the driver of the No. 2 car turn his back. Kevin Harvick then pushed Kes back toward Gordon, setting off a wild, punch-throwing melee that engulfed pit crew members and which left both Gordon and Keselowski bloody.

Given that it was a fight between the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, and Cale Yarborough after the 1979 Daytona 500 that helped launch NASCAR to national prominence, I figured the stock car-racing world must be stoked by this year's version of fight club.

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger, for one, says he is not enamored with the Sprint Cup pugilism.

"I did not expect all these fights," Simendinger said. "I know a lot of people say 'Oh, this is great, look at all the attention it is creating.'

"Well, I don't particularly share that opinion. To me, you want people talking about the action on the track — which I think has been really good — not (talking about) all this stuff going on after (races) are over."

After three elimination rounds of three races each, there are four drivers — Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman — remaining in championship contention at Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Among that quartet, whoever finishes highest in Sunday's race is the season champ.

When NASCAR announced its new formula for picking a champion, many decried the new format as a gimmick designed to "manufacture excitement." There's some truth to those assertions, but with only one race left in the format's first go-round, says here it should be labeled a success.

Having every third race of The Chase leading up to the final serve as an "elimination event" has given NASCAR something of an NCAA Tournament feel.

The fact that any race win for a Chase-eligible driver means automatic advancement to the next round has done what many NASCAR fans have long called for: Incentivize racing for victories instead of putting the priority on "points racing."

"I thought when Keselowski had to win at Talladega to advance, and he did, that was good stuff," Simendinger said. "Harvick had to win at Phoenix to advance, and he did. I think putting those guys in that position and seeing them respond under pressure has been fun to watch."

The detractors are right that the champion picked in the current format may not, in some (many?) years, be as worthy as the champs of the past. It is unquestionably true that in the pre-Chase years before 2004, when the championship was based on points accumulated over the whole season, the champions were more legitimate.

Yet none of the other major American pro sports choose their ultimate winner based on who had the best regular-season record.

In the just-completed World Series, both the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals survived (the highly gimmicky) wild card play-in games. The Giants are the sixth wild card team to win the World Series. The same number of NFL wild cards have won the Super Bowl.

Of the four Chase finalists, Logano (five wins, 22 top 10s) and Harvick (four wins, 19 top 10s) have legitimate championship credentials. Hamlin (one win, 17 top 10s) and especially Newman (zero wins, 15 top 10s) would be more questionable as champions.

Or maybe they should be viewed as NASCAR's Butler and VCU.

"I'm very interested to see how the Homestead race goes," Simendinger said. "But, overall, so far I'm a big fan (of the new format). I think it's been great. I told (NASCAR CEO) Brian France when (the Chase Grid) was proposed I thought this was the right direction to go. And nothing I've seen so far changes that."

Well, except for the post-race "boxing with Kes" that has animated this year's new Chase.

"I don't think you want it to get to the point," Simendinger said, "where people leave disappointed if there isn't a fight after every race."