Thursday, February 6, 2014

So if NASCAR is all about winning, who's going to win?

How many times in recent years has there been a NASCAR race, and when TV reporters talk to drivers afterwards, you sometimes hear them say it was a good points day? And yes, while that may be true, it was sometimes upsetting that they weren't too upset about not winning. Sure, no one, not even Jimmie Johnson, is going to win every race. But it has been more the exception than the rule to see a driver walk away with at top five finish and be upset about not winning.
Maybe that will at least change a little now.
If a driver wins one of the first 26 races of the the Sprint Cup's regular season, is in the top 30 in the points standings and starts all of those races, he or Danica Patrick will be eligible for the 10-race Chase. But now the Chase will feature 16 drivers, with four drivers dropping out after each third race.  But if any driver wins one of those three races in each segment, he or Patrick will automatically advance to the next round. Eventually, that will leave NASCAR with its own version of the Final Four for its last race of the season at Homestead, with the first of those four drivers to cross the finish line winning the title.
There will likely not be a lot of surprises as to who makes the Chase. It's going to be many of the same names. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are all strong favorites to make the Chase. That's 15 drivers right there and I would be surprised if one of them doesn't make it. But anything is possible. This will be a strong rookie class with Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson as the early Rookie of the Year favorites, but you never know what can happen. For example, under this format last year, David Ragan would've made the Chase with his win at Talladega. So a surprise win or two could well occur.
But in trying to find title favorites and with all this emphasis on winning, here's a look at the winners at the 10 Chase tracks in each of the last two seasons. It would seem these drivers would have the best chance to advance in each round.
Jimmie Johnson has had plenty of winning moments in his career. Winning
races will now be more important than ever in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The Big Picture
First, here's a look at the overall picture. There have been 36 races at the 10 Chase tracks in the past two seasons and the drivers that have won the most at those tracks is not a surprise. Johnson has six wins, Kenseth five, Harvick, Hamlin and Keslowski each have four, Kahne and Gordon each two and then Stewart, Ragan, Edwards, Bowyer, Biffle, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray and Ragan each have one.
Here's a look at recent history at the tracks in each round:
Challenger Round
The first three tracks in the Chase are Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover, with Dover being the first elimination race in the Chase. The winners at those tracks the last two years have been Kenseth, Keselowski and Johnson with two wins each, and Stewart, Vickers, Kahne and Hamlin with one win each. And if a driver needs a win going into Dover to advance to the next round, Johnson has two wins there and Stewart and Keselowski each have one win there. It would be a major surprise if Johnson does not make it out of the first round.
Contender Round
The next three tracks are Kansas, Charlotte and the always unpredictable Talladega. At those three tracks, Kenseth has three wins, Keselowski and Harvick two each, then Hamlin, Kahne, Bowyer, Ragan and McMurray one each. And since the elimination race in this round is at Talladega, it's just impossible to pick a favorite if a driver needs a win to advance to the next round. It will be interesting to see how team work comes into play if say, for example, Johnson has already won and is guaranteed a spot in the next round and a teammate like Earnhardt or Gordon needs a push to get a win to get there. And I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing at all, just another strategy option that may come into play.
Eliminator Round
The next three tracks are Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. Recent winners at those places have been Johnson with four wins, Harvick with two, Gordon, Newman, Biffle, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Edwards each with one. The elimination track here is Phoenix, where Harvick has won twice and Hamlin and Edwards each once in the past two years. This race won't likely have the super-close racing that Talladega will bring, but there will be eight drivers going for four spots, so the strategy here, whether it be with fuel or tires, will likely make for an interesting day.
Championship Round
This actually may be the most difficult round to handicap. That's because with the exception of Tony Stewart needing to win (which he did) in 2011 to take the title, the Chase leader in this race has been in more of a stay out of trouble and just finish mode. The last two winners here have been Gordon and Hamlin, neither of which was in the Chase. And you have to admit, with the exception of 2011, this final race in recent years has been anti-climactic. Now, with four drivers just trying to beat each other, it guarantees significant drama in the final race.
And if you're upset that consistency won't mean as much as it has in past NASCAR championship history, here's the irony in all of this as many of you know. With all this emphasis on winning, a driver who has won just once in his past 198 races, Dale Earnhardt Jr., would have been the champion under this system last year.
And really, who could predict something like that?

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