Potential Flaws in the 2014 Chase for Sprint Cup Format That Have NASCAR Worried

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2014

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and is looking competitive. Most of the other big NASCAR names are in the mix too, and the new Chase Elimination format seems to have created a mostly positive buzz.

So what possibly could go wrong?

Well, there are a few things NASCAR is concerned about or at least should be, even if the powers-that-be say it isn't.

Purists of the sport are taking aim at the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, where the four drivers to survive the first three Chase elimination rounds will settle the championship by seeing who can finish highest in one last race. (Four drivers are eliminated from the original field of 16 after each of three series of three races to set the stage for the drama in Homestead).

Some, such as Kenny Wallace, who drove in the Sprint Cup Series for nearly 20 years and still makes the occasional start in the Nationwide Series, are flat-out horrified at the thought of one race settling the championship after 36 weeks of racing.

Wallace, now primarily a NASCAR television analyst for Fox Sports, wrote on FoxSports.com: "I cringe at the thought of determining a champion in one race. Although it might be exciting, it's any driver's worst nightmare to have a caution with 10 laps to go—and then have a bad pit stop. For that to determine the champion would be very difficult for me to swallow."

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FoxSports.com columnist Tom Jensen agreed with Wallace, adding: "The final round should be three or four races, not one."

Obviously, this writer disagrees and has said so in every forum available to him. But these guys do have a point.

It's not just the bad pit stop that looms as a potential disaster.

To be honest, that's on the contending teams. And if one of them gives into the pressure on the last, most important pit stop of the season, that's not going to be all that much different than an offensive line giving up a sack that leads to a fumble by a quarterback when he's leading a drive down the field for a potential go-ahead score late in a Super Bowl.

That's sports, and that's how it goes sometimes. You have to be able to execute under pressure to win championships in any of them.

The other issues related to that final race that have NASCAR worried—or at least should have it worried—are more complex.

Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson brought one to the forefront last week at Chicagoland Speedway when he drove so brilliantly—and aggressively—and nearly won the Chase opener. He also nearly wrecked himself and Kevin Harvick trying.

Not that Larson did anything wrong. He was going for the win, which would have been the first Cup win of his career. That's exactly what he should do. And the fact is that he didn't wreck anyone—not even himself.

But what if Larson, who is not in the Chase, is driving that aggressively while trying to win the season finale at Homestead, and he does wreck one of the four drivers vying for the title? And that doesn't just apply to Larson. It could be any one of the 39 drivers who are not in the final four who triggers such a calamity.


And the same issue could rear its ugly head in any of the final races of the three elimination rounds, helping decide who advances and whose season is over.

What if, for instance, Kyle Busch is knocked out of the Chase by then, but one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates—Denny Hamlin or Matt Kenseth—isn't, and Busch wrecks Earnhardt Jr. as Earnhardt is battling three others for his first Sprint Cup title at Homestead or even at Talladega in the final race of the second round? And what if one of the beneficiaries of this is one of Busch's JGR teammates?

How would that play to the public?

One other seemingly unforeseen side effect of the new Chase format now involves Brad Keselowski, who won at Chicagoland to secure his spot in the next round of the playoffs. That's great for him and his No. 2 Team Penske Ford team, but now what incentive does the team have to go all-out over the next two races before the next round of the Chase starts?

How much will teammates help each other as it gets deeper into the Chase?
How much will teammates help each other as it gets deeper into the Chase?Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

And would Keselowski, now that he has clinched his spot, do something he wouldn't normally do to help teammate Joey Logano advance to the next round? Conversely, if one of those guys makes the final four at Homestead and the other does not (and the same goes for other teams who have multiple cars in the Chase), how much or how little will teammates do to help the one who is in it win the title?

That last thing NASCAR wants or needs is another Richmond SpinGate controversy in the final race of the season in the first championship decided under the new Chase Elimination format. But there are subtle ways for teammates to help each other out (hint: crew chief telling driver to check his poison oak and "itch it" is not one of them).

And what if someone like the red-hot Keselowski wins one race in each of the first three Chase rounds (or more) but blows a tire early at Homestead, and someone like Kenseth, who has yet to win a race all season, ends up having enough "good points days" to win it all? That certainly would throw a proverbial large wrench in NASCAR's grand plan to have wins mean everything this season.

As this Chase goes forward, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out—and whether NASCAR ends up hitting a home run with this new format or if the winner-take-all, one-race-to-claim-the-Chase deal turns out to be a dangerous dud further damaging to the sport's integrity when it badly needs the opposite.

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 as well as covering NASCAR as a writer/editor for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.