DAYTONA BEACH — When NASCAR promises a change for the better, we’re all too familiar with how often that vow gets broken. The best response is to simply wait for the impending criticism, then watch the governing body switch gears again.
Stock car racing has tried without much success the past decade to find the right championship formula, but each experiment has fallen short of a home run.
But starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500, fans might finally have a Chase to embrace. The new format for a Sprint Cup title should encourage drivers to take more risks, presumably leading to more drama at the finish line.
NASCAR finally heeded the outcry from fans, who wanted a points system that put more emphasis on winning and less protecting a driver’s position on the track.
A new setup means any victory in the first 26 races will virtually guarantee one of 16 spots in the Chase, providing there’s not 17 or more different winners by the Sept. 6 race at Richmond. In the last decade, that average number is 12.4, so a few non-winning drivers will likely make the Chase with a high points total.
But as they advance through races 27-35, leaving a Final Four that are championship-eligible for the season finale at Homestead, winning becomes imperative. Yes, it’s mathematically possible to win a Sprint Cup title without winning a race (a winless Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the 2013 points title under this new format), but the odds are stacked against it.
“The reward for taking risks is going to be greater,” said four-time points champion Jeff Gordon. “You’ll see more guys running out of fuel, more bumping and colliding. This heightens things up a bit. I still think the best team is going to win the championship, regardless of the system.”
Gordon’s team at Hendrick Motorsports is the alpha dog. It has captured a record 11 Sprint Cup driver titles, thanks to headliner Jimmie Johnson winning six of the last eight. Some believe NASCAR’s tweak was done to minimize the dominance of the No. 48 car, but Johnson isn’t buying it.
“I don’t see it as an attempt to stump the 48,” said Johnson. “I really think it’s to build excitement.”
NASCAR would never say this publicly, but it’s tired of Johnson wrapping up the points title at Homestead by merely avoiding a wreck. Now the highest Homestead finisher among four title-eligible drivers will win the championship, period. NASCAR wants a Game 7, a winner-take-all scenario.
Better yet, with one win likely putting a driver in the Chase, that means the Daytona 500 champion — and every race winner — is guaranteed a shot at the ultimate pot of gold.
Chances are, such a high-risk, high-reward format will lead to more wrecks, more controversy, more real racing, and more dramatic finishes.
That’s the kind of change NASCAR can live with.
Gene Frenette: (904) 359-4540