If NASCAR wanted to fan the flames of made-for-TV drama, the alteration of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format last season certainly accomplished that goal.
Look no further than the dustup between Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth at Charlotte last year in the opening round of the Contender Round.
“The intent of it is to create excitement, and oh boy did it,” Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer said. “Matt Kenseth was tackling people. That’s about as intense as it gets.”
Throughout its history, NASCAR had used yearlong driver’s points standings to crown its champion, the so-called single-table approach.
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That changed in 2004 with the adoption of a playoff format.
The first 26 races set the championship field, but the final 10 determined the champion. Points were reset incrementally and the drivers raced it out from there.
The format was tweaked again before the 2007 season, expanding the Chase field from the top 10 plus anyone within 400 points of the leader to 12 drivers, who all started the playoff races with 5,000 points plus 10 bonus points for each race won during the regular season.
Before the 2011 season, the Chase was format was altered again. The top-10 drivers still made the cut, but the other two spots were wild-card qualifiers.
Bowyer was part of a controversial finish in 2013, when he was accused of intentionally spinning in an effort to get Martin Truex Jr. off the bubble and into the Chase during a race at Richmond International Raceway.
The 2013 Chase included 13 drivers after Ryan Newman, who was leading when Bowyer spun out and wound up third, was given a pass into the field.
Now, the Chase format is broken into rounds and includes the top 16 drivers. A win at any point guarantees advancement to the next round.
“The third race of each of these blocks is a pressure cooker,” six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “Last year showed that it brings the best and worst out of people. I would anticipate a lot of chaos, a lot of frustration, a lot of emotion and just great television.”
The first three races — at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover — are known the Challenger Round, after which four drivers are eliminated.
The races at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega — including Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — comprise the Contender Round.
Another four drivers are eliminated before the Eliminator Round, which takes place at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.
The top four drivers after the Eliminator Round go to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a winner-take-all season finale. The top finisher among that four-driver group wins the Cup.
Last season, during the first year of the new format, Kevin Harvick drove away with the his first Sprint Cup championship.
“I feel like it was extremely exciting last year,” Johnson said. “Having to win the final race of the year to be a champion is a good thing, so I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and certainly created a lot of buzz last year.”
The three-race format to survive and advance is a mixed bag for drivers. It doesn’t leave much room for error.
“It’s tough,” 2004 Cup champion Kyle Busch said. “Last year, I got a flat tire at New Hampshire with about 50 laps to go. It was one of those phantom tire rubs. There was no smoke coming from it and I couldn’t feel it in the steering, but the next thing you know I’ve got a flat right front tire and I’m in the fence.”
It ruined Busch’s Chase hopes, but such an incident likely would have been fatal in the title chase under old formats, too.
Other drivers appreciate he chance to win and advance as Harvick did Oct. 4 at Dover International Raceway, where he was on the outside looking in from a points perspective but punched a ticket to the Challenger Round with a checkered flag.
“It offers opportunities to make up a deficit,” Kyle Busch said. “If you have a blown engine or something like that, your team needs to be capable of getting a way to automatically advance to the next round. Some teams won’t have that opportunity, and having a failure like that will still knock them out, but for stronger teams it creates an advantage there.”