The retooled format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup proved so successful in 2014 that NASCAR did not dare tinker with the “Win and You’re In” regular season, followed by three rounds of eliminations every three weeks during the 10-race Chase.
But there was little doubt the format spawned a feeling of desperation not previously seen in Sprint Cup racing before or since the Chase was instituted in 2005.
“It’s probably going to end up shortening my career … just because it was so stressful over the (season’s) last 10 weeks,” said 2014 champion Kevin Harvick.
Harvick staved off elimination by winning the penultimate race at Phoenix and advanced with three other drivers to Homestead-Miami, where he won the season finale and took the title.
“It was definitely high intensity, high stress as we went through the new format … knowing you have three weeks to make something happen,” Harvick said. “It created some really, really, good racing, and everybody just kind of throwing caution to the wind to try to win races for your team to keep advancing through the rounds.”
The desperation to stay in the Chase caused tempers to flare more than usual at the end of races at Charlotte, where Denny Hamlin had to be restrained by his crew from going after Brad Keselowski after the race; at Martinsville, where Matt Kenseth took the blame for wrecking Harvick; and especially following races at Texas and Phoenix.
On a restart with two laps to go at Texas, Keselowski tried forcing his way through a hole that wasn’t wide enough for his car. He made contact with Jeff Gordon, who wrecked, and afterward Gordon confronted Keselowski, sparking a massive brawl.
A week later at Phoenix, Ryan Newman advanced from the final race in the Eliminator Round by running Kyle Larson into the wall on the final lap and finished 11th, one point ahead of Gordon for one of the final four spots at Homestead.
“One word, if you want to know what created all the controversy and excitement, and that word was elimination,” said Hall of Famer and three-time Sprint Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, now an analyst for Fox.
“You knew every three races that somebody was going to be eliminated. Whether you got eliminated by somebody else or you did it to yourself …knowing the big prize was the last race at Homestead.”
Though NASCAR might have created some unintended consequences with the elimination format, Gordon understands it was good for the sport.
“That’s what makes it entertaining and makes it more exciting to watch,” Gordon said. “If the drivers have their hands full, driving the car, the fans are going to see and sense that a lot more; whether it’s in our voice, the pitch of our voice, the things that we say when we get outside the car or watching. And if the competition is so fierce that it creates a lot of drama and frustration and more excitement when you do well, then I think the fans are also going to feel and sense that.
“That’s what I saw with the new points format. I know from where I was sitting, when that Chase started, it was extremely intense and every moment and every lap and every position just seemed to be so critical, and it only increased as we got closer to the end. And so, I think from a viewership and entertainment standpoint, it certainly did what it set out to do.”
Carl Edwards expects the intensity to increase this season in year two of the new Chase format.
“Guys give 100 percent, and all of them want to win these races,” Edwards said. “Knowing if you win a race … win a cutoff race, you advance to the next round, it does make you more willing to take big risks. I believe last year we were finding our way, and you might see more and more of it. NASCAR is putting all the ingredients in a pot for people to take risks and gambles … so it should be exciting to watch.”
None of the desperate measures some drivers took last season surprised 1999 champion and Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett.
“I’m not going to be a person who said, ‘I told you so,’” said Jarrett, an analyst for NBC Sports, “but I did say on the day the format was announced, this will bring things we’re not expecting from these drivers as they feel the pressure that mounts and builds during the chase.
“There’s always been a certain kind of elimination regardless of what the format was. As the season wound down, you either got eliminated because you couldn’t gain enough points to stay in it … but this was an official elimination. It was going to happen every three races. What happened at Charlotte and at Texas was the byproduct of pressure.”