“I still think the way you win a championship is the same: You've got to win races.”
That’s six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson talking to the media earlier this week at NASCAR’s annual preseason media day at Daytona International Speedway. The man knows a little something about winning championships and winning races.
Never mind all the hoopla surrounding NASCAR’s changes to the Chase, the takeaway here is that series boss Brian France has made it very clear that he wants his champion to be a race winner.
The biggest change in the format has caught everyone’s attention: You win a race, you make the Chase field. Win races in the Chase and you win the championship.
It’s that simple.
Or is it?
“Yeah, winning a race and you’re in, but winning a race is tough,” said Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “It sounds really easy.”
Teams have always gone into the season knowing that they needed to start strong. The phrase most often used has been, “Be in the top 10 in points by the fifth race of the season (which this year is at Auto Club Speedway in California) and you’ll be in the top 10 at the start of the Chase come September.”
A quick glance into the NASCAR history books and maybe that old adage just might be true.
Over the past 10 years, there’s evidence of static movement in the top 10 standings between race No. 5 and the final race before the Chase begins (Richmond). That’s because, with the current points system, drivers who get off to a strong start usually stay strong, leaving little opportunity for others to move ahead of them in the standings. It takes an unfortunate event or a two- to three-race DNF (did not finish) streak to take a driver out of the running.
Now, with the new Chase format, what’s going to happen when a team wins an early race? Will it change the way it approaches the rest of the season?
“Winning a race early would give you the opportunity to go for another win. And going for multiple wins, you try to build up those bonus points that I think are ever so important to win any championship,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Is there a downside to an early win? Will it mean that the pressure is off, leaving the door open to complacency for the team?
“I think that it gives you an opportunity where it relieves a little bit of pressure because you can say, 'Okay, we’re locked in the Chase, so now we don’t have to try so hard and put ourselves in bad situations or whatever when it comes to trying to make the Chase,'" said Kyle Busch.
Those bad situations Busch refers to are the errors in judgement, a wreck, a cut tire or some other issue that can result in a driver’s weekend ending with his or her car in the garage—or worse, with the car already on the hauler well before the checkered flag flies.
“The flip side of that,” Busch continued, “is you can win a race early on in the season and the pressure comes off and you can go on and you can win six or seven because you’re just going ‘out of the box.’ You’re trying crazy stuff and seeing if you can’t steal some wins versus earning them, I guess.”
These new Chase rules, it seems, are open to interpretation.
One thing the new emphasis on winning has done is make racing for points a thing of the past. That’s a good thing. Nothing causes more irritation to dedicated fans than hearing their favorite driver say after a race that he had a good day after finishing in 10th place. Or that their driver had "a top-10 car."
According to Tom Jensen of Fox Sports, research done by NASCAR revealed that fans wanted their favorite driver to be thinking more about winning.
Now, with a new emphasis on winning, maybe we can expect to hear more drivers say, "I just didn’t have the car to win today" or "I had the car to win, but I didn’t."
But we probably won’t.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon likes the new Chase format, and he’s on the side of risk-taking.
“[It’s] going to make you take a few more risks and push just a little bit harder because a win now has become more important than it was before,” said Gordon. “The risk versus reward is what it's always been about. And the reward for being consistent was very high in previous points systems. The reward for taking more risk is now greater, so guys are going to take more risk.”
Drivers taking more risk. That sounds like part of the recipe for real racing excitement—something many fans believe has been missing from the sport for too long. And, according to driver Casey Mears, making it more exciting makes the sport more fan-friendly, another critical goal that’s often been voiced by NASCAR execs.
“I think the biggest thing is to create more excitement and making it easier for a lot of the fans to follow it,” said Mears. “Quite honestly, if you start getting into the nuts and bolts of how it’s always been, it can get somewhat confusing to the casual fan. I think it (the new Chase format) makes it a lot easier to kind of understand.”
But what if a driver doesn’t get off to a strong start? In the past, if a driver struggled for the first five to 10 races on the schedule, his season was often over and both he and his team found themselves in the unfortunate position of thinking more about building momentum for the next season than their chances in the current one.
“Now, if you struggle for the first 18 races but win the 19th, you’re right there and have a shot at the championship,” said AJ Allmendinger. “I think that’s what makes the new format fun.”
The former open wheel racer drives the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty, one of NASCAR’s smaller teams. The new Chase format has opened the door for the one- or two-car teams in an era where three- or four-car teams are the standard.
“It leads to more of variety of things that can happen,” added Allmendinger. “For us, I think it gives us a good chance.”
David Ragan, who drives for the two-car Front Row Motorsports team, has not made a Chase field yet, but he has won a Cup race. Ragan sees the new rules opening up the championship to more of the the field.
“I think this opens the field up for the Chase for another 20 potential teams. A team like us that can win a race, but we’re not consistently good enough to be 10th in points or 12th in points.
“I think you look at our team, Richard Petty Motorsports, BK Racing, Swan Racing, you even look at a team like Chip Ganassi’s. They’re not good enough to run in the top 10 every single week, but if they could win a race, you’re in the Chase and then anything can happen.”
It appears that this new emphasis on winning has been given the thumbs up by NASCAR’s drivers.
The new attitude in the garage that places more emphasis on winning is long overdue. NASCAR officials have been searching for the past several years for a way to spice up the sport and make it a better fit into a 21st century world.
They may have found their answer.
*All driver quotes are from the NASCAR preseason media day at Daytona International Speedway and made available via official transcripts released by each driver’s respective manufacturer representative.