Robin Pemberton arrived on the NASCAR scene as a mechanic and engine fabricator for Petty Enterprises in 1979. That longevity clearly stamps him as a traditionalist in stock car racing.
But even the remotest temptation to hold onto the old way of doing things has been greatly superseded by the duties Pemberton has performed for the sanctioning body since 2004.
As director of competition for all three national series, he has been at the forefront of executive actions intended to encourage fiercer competition and, not coincidentally, create greater theater.
NASCAR is in the entertainment business, after all. And the radically revised Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination format Pemberton and “easily three dozen” other officials hashed out last winter has evolved explosively.
The Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, with four championship contenders engaging in a winner-take-all race within a race, will climax a 10-race Chase that has exponentially intensified competition and repeatedly brought emotions to the boiling point.
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman are the Championship 4 survivors from which a first-time Sprint Cup champion will emerge Sunday night. The name of the highest finisher among the quartet will be engraved onto the trophy.
Contrast that to the Homestead finales in 2012 and 2013. Brad Keselowski needed only to finish 15th or better two seasons ago to wrap up a championship season no matter how challenger Jimmie Johnson fared. And last year Johnson had 23rd as a goal to protect a near-insurmountable lead over Matt Kenseth for his sixth Cup crown over an eight-year period of unprecedented dominance.
Neither is it disingenuous to point out that the least dramatic season finale in the 10 years since NASCAR went to a 10-race Chase “playoff” has been far more captivating than the 2003 season culminating in Kenseth’s Cup championship.
His points advantage from midseason forward made that a foregone conclusion. It was as if NASCAR threw a New Year’s Eve party but sent everybody home and turned out the lights before 10 p.m.
The new format built upon three three-race miniseasons paring contenders from 16 to 12 to eight to four has provided race-after-race pyrotechnics.
“The elimination [aspect] really put an extra emphasis on winning races and performing at a high level throughout the Chase,” Pemberton said by telephone Sunday night from Phoenix. “Guys are driving every lap of every race like it’s a qualifying lap. There’s not a lot of [strategic] laying back right now.”
Previously, a driver atop championship points standings often, and prudently, shifted into conservation gear, a prevent defense at 190 mph. That has not been entirely regulated out of the sport. But in this format, it rarely would make sense.
Naturally, emotions stirred on the track have spilled over onto pit road and in the garage area. Keselowski has been at the eye of the storm in skirmishes after Chase races at Charlotte, North Carolina, and Fort Worth, Texas.
Pemberton admitted to a “little bit of a surprise” at the volatility.
“But you could see the tension building,” he said. Evident was “how the competitors adjusted their strategies, how hard they ran, the risks they [were willing to take] every lap of every race to try to get to the next level.”
The pressure on drivers and teams has focused a spotlight on Pemberton and his team of officials as well.
“We knew that going in,” he said. “We knew there would be a lot of scrutiny. It has been hard on everybody. But I think the officials have done an outstanding job.”
Punishments typically are assessed the Tuesday after a race. The post-Texas brawl ignited after Keselowski’s bold move in closing laps cut Gordon’s tire and sent him spinning from a likely first- or second-place finish to 29th and, a week later at Phoenix, out of title contention by a single point.
Pemberton and Co. did not punish Keselowski, Gordon or Harvick — who had a significant part as instigator of actual physical combat — but did hand down $185,000 in total fines to six Hendrick Motorsports crew members. (Team owner Rick Hendrick paid the fines.)
Pembroke explained the thin line NASCAR officials walk in determining punitive action.
“Everybody pretty much understands that you can grab and you can push around and you can raise voices, all of that. But the minute you close your fist and strike someone, that’s out of bounds.”
Undeniable is that the elimination Chase format appears not to have tightened or squeezed the boundaries but loosened and extended them. And as a consequence, stock car racing expanded on occasion from ESPN onto network newscasts. That’s a bonus.