NASCAR created the Chase for the Sprint Cup (originally the Nextel Cup) in 2004.
After Matt Kenseth won the final Winston Cup in 2003 and captured just one win in the entire season, the Chase was seen as a way to reward winning over consistency.
It hasn’t always worked out that way in the first 10 years of the Chase—Jimmie Johnson won six of the first 10 championships through both wins AND consistency.
When NASCAR announced its reformatted Chase this year, including a historic playoff and elimination format, wins were supposed to be paramount to not only qualify for the Chase, but to ultimately win it. But here we are, three races from the crowning of the championship, and one-quarter of the eight drivers remaining have yet to win a race in 2014.
What's more, two others—Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards—haven't won in a long time. Hamlin's last win was May 4; Edwards' was June 22.
In addition, as we head to Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s race, a winless Ryan Newman finds himself in second place in the standings, just three points behind series leader Jeff Gordon, while fellow winless driver Matt Kenseth is ranked fourth, five points behind Gordon.
While it may seem to fly in the face of NASCAR’s belief that wins aren’t the only thing, they’re everything, and we have a very realistic chance of the first champion of the new Chase format being a driver who goes winless for the entire season.
While NASCAR, fans and even ESPN (which is televising all races in the Chase) may be concerned at a winless champion, the more I’ve thought about the possibility, the more I’m starting to lean in the other direction. There seems to be so much concern about having a champion without a win—that such a thing would be bad for NASCAR and the sport as a whole.
I disagree. So what if the eventual champ is winless? In the whole big scheme of things, a championship is built on consistency, great team personnel, excellent pit strategy by the crew chief and, frankly, a little luck doesn't hurt.
Sure, everybody wants to see his or her favorite driver win as many races as possible. But look at Kenseth last season: He won a series-high seven races and yet fell short of the championship, finishing second in the Chase to Johnson and his sixth career Cup championship.
The point I’m trying to make is wins aren't everything in either qualifying for the Chase or winning it.
Perhaps the best example of that is Newman. He went through the 26-race regular season (winless, of course) with just two top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.
When the final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond International Raceway ended in early September, Newman just barely squeaked into the playoffs, coming in 14th of the 16-driver field. That’s about as far out as you can get, yet somehow, Newman and the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team found a way to make the championship battle.
And that way was, plain and simple, consistency.
It was the week-in and week-out ability to keep pace with other drivers that got Newman to the entry door of the Chase, and it’s what has him knocking on yet another door as potentially one of the final four drivers in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in less than three weeks.
While Kenseth has been ranked higher than Newman for the majority of the season, again, it has been consistency that has gotten him. If he can't win, he gets around that obstacle by maintaining his composure, taking what the race and race track will give him and then going home with the best he could achieve that day.
Ditto for Newman.
And that's not a bad thing, as Kenseth told Dustin Long of MRN.com recently:
Who am I to decide what is good or bad? Obviously, if we could we’d have 30 wins. Bottom line is only one guy is going to win and 42 aren’t each and every week. We had shots to win earlier this year and couldn’t pull it off. We’ve been kind of warm and cold. We haven’t been hot like we were last year. We’ve been warm more than cold.
If Newman or Kenseth makes it to Homestead and comes away with the Sprint Cup trophy, will it take away from NASCAR’s grand plan of wins make championships and champions?
But there is reason for pause. Consider what Tony DiZinno of MotorSportsTalk said recently.
So how would NASCAR react if one or both of Kenseth and Newman continue their consistent, nondescript, methodical run of results, fail to win, and advance through to Homestead, battle for the championship, and eventually have it come down to say, who finishes sixth or seventh to win the title?
It’s a question I’m guessing they don’t want to answer. But it would break open the debate about the value and true impact of this new format if either winless driver, again if they stay winless, was to emerge as champion over a six-win Brad Keselowski or a five-win Joey Logano, for instance.
Sure, the naysayers and critics of the sport will want you to think otherwise, that the new format of the Chase is a loser. That it wasn’t well thought out or conceived in the sport’s bid to enhance excitement and give the Chase a true playoff atmosphere like college basketball’s Final Four.
On the contrary.
In fact, I’m betting that NASCAR’s crack public relations team is already hard at work, preparing for that very real possibility of a winless champion.
If Kenseth or Newman does not win any of the three remaining races yet still goes on to win the championship, he’ll make Chase history. But more importantly, he'll prove that the new Chase format really does work. To have an underdog like Newman or Kenseth win it all may very well be the best thing that ever happened to NASCAR and the Chase.
Because everybody loves an underdog. And if an underdog winds up winning this year’s Chase, the accomplishment and achievement will be sweeter and potentially more meaningful.
Much like we've seen countless of times in college hoops, underdogs like Butler and VCU and others often seem to find a way to not only knock off some of the best teams in the tourney, but to potentially get as far as the Final Four.
So even if Kenseth or Newman wins the Chase, don’t look for NASCAR to make any wholesale changes to the format or admit that it didn’t consider the possibility of a winless driver winning the championship. Rather, NASCAR officials like Brian France, Mike Helton and others can stand on the championship podium at Homestead and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
Sure, it may not have played out the way they wanted it originally, but it actually may wind up playing out even better this way.
I can see the headline now: “2014 Chase champion: From underdog to NASCAR’s top dog.”
How can you not love a storyline like that?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski