NASCAR's New Chase Structure: Why We Like It, and Who It Might Help in 2011

Paul CarreauAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2011

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 11:  (Back row from L-R) The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase contenders Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-It Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet,  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet, (Front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet, Jeff Burton, driver of the #31 Caterpilliar Chevrolet,  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet,  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, pose following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 11, 2010 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Brian France, NASCAR chairman, announced a slew of new changes coming to the sport this season. Many of the announcements made, had been rumored for the last few weeks, so nothing that was made official was too surprising.

One of the changes that interested me the most was the announcement of the revamped Chase structure. As in past years, the top 10 in points after race number 26 of the season, will once again qualify for the Chase for the Championship

The new wrinkle is that positions 11 and 12 in the Chase will now belong to the two drivers not ranked inside the top 10 that have the most wins. If there is a tie, the spots will obviously go to the two drivers ranked highest in the standings.

The two "wild card" drivers, as they are referred, will not be eligible for bonus points to begin the Chase and will be locked into their 11th and 12th seedings, regardless of how many wins they have.

While this may not be a major change, and may not even come into play this coming season, it shows that NASCAR is trying to put even more of an emphasis on winning. Had this system been in place a season ago, Jamie McMurray, winner of both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, would have been in the Chase for the Championship instead of Clint Bowyer.

The beauty of this rule, is that it gives a driver some forgiveness. As long as you have proven that you win, you could be rewarded with a championship opportunity regardless of some of your other finishes through the first 26 races.

While some fans may not like the fact that a driver who ends the regular season outside the 12 in points, could displace a driver in the top 12 and sneak into the Chase, there is the flip side of the equation.

A lot of people didn't think it was right, that McMurray, the winner of the two biggest races of the season didn't have a chance to race for the championship. Now, under the new rule, that is not an issue.

So, now that the rule has been set in stone, and will be put to use this coming season, it is almost inevitable that it will help someone, and hurt someone. So let's take a look at the two drivers who I think could most benefit, and also get hurt by this new change.

First the two drivers this will help.

Jamie McMurray

It almost feels like this rule was adapted because of him, so he might as well take advantage of it. While McMurray produced a career season in 2010, it still wasn't enough to get into the Chase.

I highly doubt that he will repeat the remarkable accomplishment of a year ago, winning both Daytona and Indianapolis, but he should be able to build off last years success and find victory lane again.

The problem for McMurray was inconsistency. Aside from his two big regular season wins, he also posted nine finishes outside the top 20 during the regular season. If he can't become a little more consistent, and really limit his poor finishes, he may have to rely on this rule change to get into the Chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya

Montoya could turn out to be the real big winner with this deal. He also found victory lane during the regular season, a year ago, but much like teammate McMurray, the rest of the regular season was marred by inconsistency.

Montoya scored top 10's in 13 of the seasons first 26 races, including five in a row to close out the regular season. But on the flip side, he also had 10 finishes outside of the top 25 during the regular season.

Once again, Montoya needs to find some consistency if he wants to qualify for the Chase via a top 10 points position. Either way, I am expecting a breakthrough year for Montoya. I think he finally gets a win on an oval, as well as probably another road course win.

And if that is the case, his two (and maybe a couple more) wins should be enough to earn a spot in the Chase.

But if two drivers sneak in, that means two would have to be replaced. Here are the two drivers that I think this rule change could hurt.

Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton had a solid 2010 season, but it was nothing spectacular. There were a few instances where he had the car to beat late in the race, but for one reason or another, he never found victory lane.

That could be a problem this year. While Burton will run well enough to just barely make the Chase, in the 11th or 12th points position, he may not have the opportunity to run for the title if he can't capture at least one checkered flag.

Clint Bowyer

Bowyer could be in the same situation as his teammate. While he did manage to record two wins, they both came once the Chase had already started. While he was solid during the regular season, it also wasn't overly spectacular.

Through the first 26 races, his top finish was just a fourth place run. And while he posted that finish on four different occasions, it could very well take a win for Bowyer in the regular season to solidify his berth in the Chase.