To Win at Any Cost: How the New Chase Format Is Changing NASCAR for the Better

Bob MargolisContributor IIMay 9, 2014

Race winner at Talladega Denny Hamlin
Race winner at Talladega Denny HamlinSean Gardner/Getty Images

"It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin. It’s going to change the strategies. Everything is focused around winning and that’s exactly what our fans want."

NASCAR CEO Brian France announcing the new Chase format and qualifying rules, January 30, 2014

There are some of us who still wonder whether NASCAR’s new Chase rules, with the “win and you're in” qualifier, was the product of a lengthy project involving years of research and long hours of combing through statistics by a bunch of nerds in long white coats.

Or was it just something thought up by the top brass at NASCAR, sitting poolside at some Caribbean resort, sipping 21-year-old Glenlivet slightly chilled by ice made from frozen Fiji water?

Regardless of how they came up with it, the jury is in and it’s a rousing success. It’s done everything Brian France wanted to do—and more.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last,” as Ricky Bobby would say in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Granted, the third-generation France doesn’t have the vision of his grandfather, Bill France Sr. Nor does he have quite the panache of his father, Bill France Jr.

This time he definitely got it right.

It’s changed the racing.

It’s always been a cutthroat business, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. But now, with winning becoming the be-all, end-all of the sport, are drivers taking a “win at any cost” mentality with them when they buckle up behind the wheel?

The new format was designed to force drivers into taking chances. More often than not, taking those opportunities to win can produce a more entertaining race.

In light of the criticism Dale Earnhardt Jr. had taken after admitting (somewhat) that he may have been laying back at the end of last weekend’s Talladega race, I wondered if the opposite was true.

What about if you’ve already won? Do you lay back and let someone else win?

“No,” said AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet SS for JTG Daugherty Racing. I was interviewing Allmendinger for an upcoming column when the conversation turned to aggressive driving, winning and laying back.

“You always want to win. Everybody wants to win,” he added.

But certainly this new “winning is everything” has made everyone different?

Not in the garage, according to Allmendinger. The pressure on everyone, every member of the team, is amplified. Especially a single-car team like JTG Daugherty. But things are not noticeably different.

The change, he admitted, is on the race track.

“People look at it like ‘I win and the rest of my season is solved right there.’ And the guys that have won are thinking ‘Heck, I don’t care if I crash going for the win, I’m already in.’"

That creates a volatile mix of drivers and teams that is likely to produce fireworks in the weeks and months ahead.

The real aggressive driving hasn’t started yet. Wait until the hot summer months when drivers and teams are seeing the number of races until the Chase get fewer and fewer.

“When it gets to race 18, 19 or 20 in the regular season before the Chase,” he began, “you’re right on that cutoff line and you're thinking ‘I want to win, but if I take a chance and I wreck, that kills me in points and now maybe I don’t make the Chase because of it.’”

He describes a situation that reeks of desperation. Especially for those teams that aren’t in the running for entry into the Chase by points. Will it produce better racing or just more wrecks?

Earnhardt admitted that at Talladega he thought about being involved in a crash. He missed two races because of a concussion suffered in a violent 25-car pileup on the last lap of the 2012 fall race at Talladega. For some, that was a good enough reason for him not making that charge to the front.

Without that win in the season opener at Daytona, and the ticket to the Chase that comes with it sitting in Earnhardt’s back pocket, he probably would have had a much different race result last Sunday.