NASCAR & Auto Racing

New NASCAR Chase format has drivers on edge

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, in the garage between test runs at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead on Tuesday, October 28, 2014.
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, in the garage between test runs at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead on Tuesday, October 28, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

The criticism of NASCAR for its championship points system persisted even after the 2004 inauguration of the Chase for the Sprint Cup “playoffs”: Victories, most believed, still did not sufficiently reward a race winner.

So much for that complaint.

Today, as a result of the radical 2014 makeover of the Sprint Cup series’ title format, winning a race might count too much. The sequence of three three-race miniseasons that gradually pare Chase qualifiers from 16 to the four championship finalists has forged a take-no-prisoners mentality.

Intensity? Check. Controversy? Check. Animosity? Check, check.

Waving the green flag is like lighting a fuse. Pressure and tension ratchet up not only from one race to the next but as laps wind down in each.

Every lap down the stretch is the last lap of the Daytona 500. Tighten your helmet and seat belts and deactivate your brain. Do whatever it takes fully aware that there could be consequences.

And don’t discount the possibility, some say probability, that recent transgressions will be avenged in the Quicken Loans 500 at Phoenix on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson won the first two in the three-race Eliminator 8 stage after having previously crashed out of the Chase. That means all eight remaining contenders at Phoenix have a shot at a Championship 4 spot in the climactic Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday.

If an Eliminator 8 driver wins, he and the next three with the highest three-race points totals will stage their own volatile race within a race for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead. Best finisher reigns.

Among the eight: Bad Brad Keselowski. Oh, boy!

All of you remaining contenders who have not punched, shoved or threatened Keselowski in the past month, raise your right hand. Hold it! Lower your hand, Jeff Gordon. You too, Matt Kenseth. Who are you kidding, Kevin Harvick? Hands at your sides, Denny Hamlin.

While crew members and NASCAR officials were restraining Hamlin from going after Keselowski at Charlotte on Oct. 11, the normally mild-mannered Kenseth charged and practically tackled Keselowski as he stalked away between team haulers.

A couple of days later, an amused Clint Bowyer, who missed the Chase this year, playfully concluded, “If Matt Kenseth comes running at you and puts you in a headlock and punches you in the nose, there’s no jury needed. There’s no judge needed. You’re guilty. Period. [Kenseth] is the nicest guy in the garage … ”

A few old-guard NASCAR followers might yearn for what they see as a truer champion based on season-long accumulation of points. But they forget the frequently tedious, drama-free finishes to pre-2004 seasons, including 2003 when champion Kenseth nursed a healthy points advantage through a humdrum second half of the season.

NASCAR officials grew increasingly concerned about the sport too often retreating from sports-section front pages and into relative obscurity once pro football commanded center stage in early September.

They desired more attention in the fall. The needed more juice, additional pizzazz. The Chase format launched in 2004, periodically tweaked, served to enliven late-season action.

But with the 2014 introduction of this elimination-rounds format, with the needle going back to zero after each three-race round, they have produced anxiety on steroids. This threatens to become pro wrestling on wheels but without a script.

Keselowski’s aggressive, win-at-all-costs behavior at Fort Worth, Texas, a week ago outraged four-time Cup champion Gordon. On a green-flag restart with two laps remaining, 2012 Cup champion Keselowski tried to squeeze his 6-foot-wide Ford into about a 5-foot-wide gap between dueling front-runners Johnson and Gordon. His right front quarterpanel slammed the left rear of the unsuspecting Gordon’s Chevrolet and flattened a tire, causing a subsequent spin.

Harvick, aligned beside Keselowski and behind Johnson on that restart, said, “Obviously, it was no-holds-barred there with the 2 [Keselowski]. He was in bulldoze mode.”

Gordon plunged from a shot at victory, or a runner-up finish that would have practically assured him a Championship 4 spot, to 29th and a tenuous hold on fourth-place in points.

The predictable postrace skirmish on pit road, which left Keselowski spitting blood, didn’t just lead off ESPN’s SportsCenter. It made network newscasts.

For public consumption, NASCAR officials can sternly chastise and financially penalize participants for behavior they consider beyond the limits. But behind closed doors, they must be pumping fists and barking, “Yes!!!” as they watch footage on NBC Nightly News.

Who couldn’t have seen this coming? The stakes are off the scale.

As Harvick noted a week ago, “Everything’s just so intense right now. We’re throwing caution to the wind. Everyone’s racing as hard as they can.” Among the least likely to avoid confrontation, he smiled. “I’m glad to be in the mix.”

A reporter asked if NASCAR officials should take tighter control, maybe more stringently enforce the rules.

“There are no rules right now,” Harvick responded somewhat impishly. “There are no rules.”

And he couldn’t have been grinning more broadly, some might say maniacally, if he were hoisting a trophy in Victory Lane.