Why NASCAR's New Elimination Format Will Bring More Excitement to the Chase

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Why NASCAR's New Elimination Format Will Bring More Excitement to the Chase
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Let's face it, some folks just don't like change. They're going to rip on it or at least roundly question it no matter what.

So it is with many when it comes to NASCAR's new elimination format for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But guess what? This new elimination format is exactly the kind of thing NASCAR needs more of. It arguably already has brought more attention to the Chase—and it's three weekends away from even starting. 

The bottom line is that it's going to bring more pressure-packed excitement to the Chase once it commences, and that's good for NASCAR and all who watch it. It might even prove to be so exciting that some who rarely or never have watched NASCAR will tune in to see what happens past Labor Day now. 

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Before we detail all the reasons why, a quick refresher course on how the Chase will work this year is in order. Some folks out there have been cracking on NASCAR for running basically an advertisement campaign to explain to fans how it will will—but what were they supposed to do, leave everyone in the dark?

It's change, and change needs to be explained.

Instead of which driver is the best over the final 10 races securing the championship, the Chase now will be broken into four rounds—or really like three mini-Chases and a winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when the last four drivers left standing will race for the title.

Four drivers will be eliminated after each of the first three-race rounds. If a driver wins a race during a three-race segment, that driver automatically qualifies for the next round, even if he is among the four worst in points. Points will be reset again after each round so all drivers enter the next round on equal footing.

The first round will be the Challenger Round, with 12 drivers advancing and four being eliminated after races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover. The next round will be the Contenders Round, with eight drivers advancing and four more being eliminated after races at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. The third round will be the Elimination Round, with the final four drivers advancing to the season finale and four more being eliminated after races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.

The drivers eliminated in each round will continue to race for points but can finish no higher than fifth in the final standings.

The season finale will feature the top four drivers battling for the championship in a winner-take-all event that should make the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway must-see TV for race fans, if nothing else. The driver who finishes highest in the final race will win the Sprint Cup championship.

Listen, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France doesn't always get it right. In fact, he often doesn't (see the fact that the 2015 schedule was just released, once again with too few of the many changes that should be made to it—but that is for another column for another day).

In the case of this Chase elimination deal, France did get it right. It should be exciting as each Chase race and each Chase round comes to an end—and then the final race has the potential to be absolutely fantastic with very little possible downside to it.

"The final race will settle it," France told Sporting News way back in January, when the change was first announced. "The first of the four to cross the finish line. That's as simple as it gets."

Well, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But it's certainly not as hard to understand as some seem determined to make it.

Critics also will and have argued that the new format no longer favors consistency, which has been a staple of the championship formula for decades. So what? You know what that led to all too often—both in the pre-Chase era and to a lesser extent in the Chase era itself? Boring finishes where the outcome of the championship was all but decided before the final race of the season was run.

Critics say that when it comes down to one winner-take-all race, it shouldn't be decided by one loose lug nut or some other mistake on pit road. But why not? Isn't having the entire race team perform under pressure what earning a championship is all about?

To borrow an analogy from football, how many times have teams gone 14-2 in the regular season only to have their seasons undone in the playoffs by one untimely interception or unfortunate fumble? Or in Major League Baseball, where one or two bad pitches or errors at the wrong time can end a playoff run?

It happens in every sport to some degree, and the ones who are able to make their playoffs the most tense, where something close to perfection is demanded every minute of every postseason affair, are the sports that seem to thrive the most in these days of fans' shortened attention spans.

Retired three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now a television analyst for Fox Sports, said that as a driver or owner he would have hated this new format—but that as a fan of the sport, he embraces it.

"If I'm a driver or owner I hate this format because it's a lot of pressure and drama for one race. Then the 'what-if' committee takes over and you start worrying about the ramifications of a flat tire or blowing an engine," Waltrip told AutoWeek. "But that's what makes it exciting. It's all-or-nothing and we've never had that.”

The new Chase elimination format will place enormous pressure on teams not only in the season finale, if they can make it that far, but in each of the Chase races. One bad race and you could be done—but remember, you could always win the next one in the first three rounds and recover nicely from a one bad race to advance.

Again, that will add pressure.

Pressure is what the playoffs in any sport are all about. And the team that handles it the best, plus sometimes has a little luck, is the one that wins the championship in any given season.

That now has been elevated to a new level in NASCAR. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it feels right.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.

Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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