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NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup format - Nothing to get mad about

NASCAR announced radical changes in Chase for the Sprint Cup Thursday.
NASCAR announced radical changes in Chase for the Sprint Cup Thursday.
Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

We now know that the face of NASCAR’s top three touring series for 2014 will look quite different in some respects. No longer will Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series fans be forced to wait hours watching single car qualifying sessions to determine who will start where; qualifying is now knockout style, fast-paced, almost a race in and of itself to see who will win the right to lead the field to the green flag on race day.

Change is never easy, but change is here and starting with the second race of the season.

“I wasn’t really excited about change that much until a lot of change started happening, so I guess I had to get used to it,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said this week during the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Now let’s change it all,” he added with a chuckle before turning serious. “No, but I’m all for it and it should be a lot of fun – I think it’s going to be fun for the drivers, too. A lot of times we change these things for the fans, but I think this is something the drivers are going to enjoy as well.”

Fans and drivers better enjoy change. As was officially announced Thursday, qualifying isn’t the only radical change for 2014. In the Sprint Cup Series the way the champion is decided will change as well, also using an elimination format. That move will see a totally new way of determining a champion. Race wins will matter more than ever and in fact that is what it will take to win the Chase, winning races throughout the year. The second criteria if no race wins will the driver higher in points; this rewards consistent finishes that include top 10 and top 5 runs. This system however will give precedent to race wins, something that is the goal of every driver in NASCAR.

“I know a lot of drivers are up-in-arms saying, ‘We’re doing all we can to win already,’ and I don’t challenge that,” said former Cup crew chief turned Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said Thursday shortly after the announcement. “But this format really rewards winning. If you win a race in the first 26 races and are a fulltime Cup driver, you know you’ll be in the playoffs, and I like that. I‘ve always said that for guys to win races and still not make the Chase isn’t right. But at the same time, if you’re the points leader at the end of 26 races, you’re still in the Chase, which is great.”

The rules stay the same during the elimination rounds with a win in one of the rounds guaranteeing a move to the next round. Again the driver with the no wins but highest in the points will advance if all race winners have been accounted for. However under the new format the elimination rounds are now more easily identified than ever before.

“We’ve always had elimination in the Chase and championship but it always came naturally – it wasn’t a structured elimination,” McReynolds said. “When we got to Homestead last year, we had three drivers mathematically alive but only two realistically alive that could win the championship. And last year at Chicagoland, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano blew motors and finished way back in the field. The way the competition is, that all but took them out of contention for the title. Under the new structure, if they had won a race to qualify for the Chase and something like that had happened, they could come back a week or two later and win and make it to the next round. I like that.”

Not many around NASCAR agree with Larry’s “like” of the new system. Comments immediately flew from media and fans Thursday saying things like NASCAR is dead, the new system will never work, and even that NASCAR did it so its most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. can win a title (“experts” quickly pointed out that had this new system been in place last year Junior would be a champion…without a win).

One area McReynolds has an issue with is the final elimination at Homestead. The top four drivers, no matter who has the most points or wins up until then, will be on equal ground; the highest finisher will take the title, no bonus points at all. He who finishes ahead of the other three wins.

“Do I raise an eyebrow about sending four drivers to Homestead on equal ground and the highest finisher wins the title?” McReynolds said. “A little bit. Not to compare NASCAR to the NFL, but last year, the Baltimore Ravens had a worse record than the 49ers. But with the way the NFL is structured, those two teams entered the Super Bowl on equal ground and the winner was the champion. We’re doing that, so to speak, with this new format.”

The point is that many purists will never again like NASCAR until we paint everything red and white, light up our Winston’s and head back to North Wilkesboro twice a year. Sorry ladies and gentlemen but we will never again see Richard Petty roaring around the Rock sucking on a towel looking to win another race. The points system changed in 2004 and many were in an uproar; yet ratings did increase; and more people outside the sport took an interest. No matter who is standing on the highest podium at Homestead or who wins the “Race to Richmond” and whatever it is NASCAR will hype, one basic fact is not going to change; the racing in the track.

NASCAR has made strides with the new Gen 6 car and it still needs some work, but you haven’t seen any radical changes there; no huge swipes at the way the flags fall or the laps are run. That’s because no matter how radical NASCAR changes things outside the track core product has stayed essentially the same. Sure how we will line up has changed and who gets to set at the head table at the championship banquet is a question mark, but we know that when the green flag falls at whatever track it is 43 of the worlds best racers will try and win that single race, and in the end as long as that never changes we will always have NASCAR.

NASCAR will move forward like other sports have, but at its core will always remain the same. And that’s what everyone needs to remember. Now let’s go racing.

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