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New Chase Grid Format Gives NASCAR Their Answer To March Madness

New Chase Grid Format is NASCAR's Answer to NCAA's March Madness

New Chase Grid Format is NASCAR’s Answer to NCAA’s March Madness [NASCAR]

HICKORY, N.C. - Beginning with the implementation of the NASCAR Chase format in 2004, the sanctioning body sought to appease a long-time wish of the core fan: making winning matter more. Many fans had become disenchanted by the “winning is not as important as consistency” mentality that accompanied a points system that, for all intent and purposes, had been in place since the mid-70’s.

Nevermind you that this point system was the one that made Cale, Darrell, and Dale household names or that those drivers, among others who would win championships in ensuing years such as “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”, would win their championships not so much by laying back and being consistent but by trying to place their machines in victory lane at each available opportunity.

Yes, each of those drivers would find themselves points racing from time to time, taking a sub-par car back to the garage in one piece and a solid 8th place finish rather than back to the garage on the hook after trying to make something out of something that wasn’t there on any given Sunday.

But by the mid-2000’s it felt like something had changed within the driver’s mindset, even if the points system had seen very little alteration in three decades of successful growth and rising national prominence. For some reason, and a potentially statistically invalid reason, it felt as if drivers were no longer going for broke but rather racing to not go broke.

Enter the Chase. NASCAR’s answer to the detractors who said the racing had become stale and that motivation was lacking. For a decade the Chase has worked fairly well for the purpose intended, with the only real change being the expansion from 10 initial Chase contenders in 2004 to 12 in 2007.

Ask a fan about the Chase and you will inevitably hear a large percentage of them echo the sentiment that since installation of the new system one major flaw in the chase ointment has emerged. This one major flaw has not been so much a loophole to winning a championship but rather a name, the name being that of Jimmie Johnson.

It has never been so much that Johnson does not race hard, or race to win, as the numbers from his impressive string of five championships in a row from 2006 to 2010 will attest, but that Johnson always seemed to be able to “turn it on” at just the right time to win yet again. People, as is human nature, tire of the same old, same old, everyone that is but Rick Hendrick, Lowe’s CEO Robert Niblock, Johnson and his wife Chandra, the crew of the #48 and its vast reaching fan base.

With Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski winning the respective 2011 and 2012 championships fans thought that maybe the Chase had turned a corner and the Johnson dominance had ended. Then along came the 2013 Sprint Cup season, a season in which Chad Knaus and the #48 crew again sprinted all the way to the Chase championship.

This past season was one in which it felt as if Matt Kenseth was reaching the winner’s podium every other weekend, though in actuality he finished the season with seven wins, only one more than Johnson’s six. Many long-time fans disdain for another Johnson championship would quickly escalate into cries for change, with passionate fans taking to internet message boards and fan forums near and far, pleading NASCAR to do something to make winning the end all be all of a championship.

Luckily for the fans, Brian France and Co. had been paying attention all along. Departing from the gleaming tower of steel and power situated alongside International Speedway Blvd in Daytona Beach, France would find himself in Charlotte on Thursday for the annual “State of the Sport” speech, a speech in which France would announce sweeping changes to the Chase formula, changes which will send the sport into the 2014 season with more possibility than ever before.

Granted, not all possibility is ultimately good possibility and NASCAR Nation could very well find itself heading to the world center of speed one year from now celebrating Johnson’s tying of Petty and Earnhardt with seven championships, and about to embark on a journey to seek a solo spot atop the sport’s championship pinnacle.

The new Chase was not designed with the over-riding intention of dethroning Johnson, rather the Chase was in many ways designed to create more opportunity for Johnson to simply dethrone himself. For if Johnson is to win a record-tying seventh championship in 2014 it will come after dancing with the dynamite spread about the minefield that is the Chase grid.

No longer will the #48 team simply face implosion after 26 and 36 races but rather season-ending implosion looms after the 26th, 29th, 32nd, 35th, and 36th races. The genius that is NASCAR marketing has even devised battle-hardened names to accompany these possible championship-ending implosion points, names like Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator. These names were designed to invoke images of one needing to go all out to win, of needing to push it to the max each weekend to simply survive and advance, and rightly so.

If these names also happen to send a fan’s mind wandering to their own glorious victories on tracks of the same name at the various NASCAR Speedparks that have existed in tourist markets around the country, then so be it. And let’s face it, beating Uncle Roger or your Sister Sue on the high banks of Myrtle Beach or the Smoky Mountains must surely evoke a similar euphoria to that of which any anti-JJ fan will experience if the series reaches Homestead in November with the #48 aiming for a best-case scenario chase finish of 5th, or even worse.

If the redesigned Chase can evoke euphoric feelings such as those in the 95% of fans who do not consider themselves Johnson fans then the NCAA-inspired bracket has done more than create yet another workplace pool-style wagering opportunity.

If the redesigned Chase again finds the Jimmie Johnson show heading to Las Vegas and the head table then even the #48 haters will have to once again tip their hat to the driving mastery that befits a living legend.

Either way, NASCAR’s willingness to gamble and play loose and fast with the long-standing concept of consistency will undoubtedly breed many more march-madness moments than currently exist on the exhaustive 36-race trek across America. Thus, no matter how the Chase ultimately turns out under the new system, Mondays in the fall will find the potential for the #NASCAR hashtag to trend much more frequently.

This means that whether you love or hate the new Chase grid you must admit that an upward trending NASCAR is good for all who live, breathe, and love the sport. The sport has evolved and in the process made major strides in not only remaining relevant but projecting relevance on the ever-expanding sports landscape and that bodes well for a future that finds NASCAR firmly entrenched as America’s home for motorsports.