Even before NASCAR’s new Chase for the Cup title playoff reached its dramatic climax Sunday, there was agreement in NASCAR circles that the revamped format was a success.
Certainly there was confusion and disappointment for some fans, and for some of NASCAR’s leading drivers, as the 10-race playoff unfolded. And television ratings showed the new Chase was slow to have an effect on viewership.
But by the time Kevin Harvick won both the season-ending race in Florida and with it the Sprint Cup Series title, there was a sense stock-car racing had drawn up a more appealing formula for determining a champion.
“You can never make everybody happy,” said Ryan Newman, one of the four Chase finalists who finished second to Harvick at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Even so, Newman said, “The intensity of the sport has gone through the roof.”
That was evident in two postrace incidents during the playoff involving Chase drivers angry with the aggressive racing of former champion Brad Keselowski, including one in Texas that led to a pit-road brawl.
Denny Hamlin, another of the four finalists, said last week that the new format was “the best thing that’s happened to this sport in a really long time.”
Newman and Hamlin, of course, weren’t entirely objective because they survived the new format’s elimination rounds for a shot at the Cup in the final race at Homestead-Miami. The other finalist was Joey Logano.
But the playoff format also eliminated some of NASCAR’s most popular drivers — including Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, so their fans were left without a championship contender at Homestead-Miami.
Hoping to boost the excitement of the Chase, NASCAR this year gave it a knockout-style format. It started with 16 drivers, and four drivers were eliminated every third race until only four were left for the season finale.
Chase drivers who won races during each playoff round automatically advanced to the next round, with those highest in points also moving forward. So there was added incentive to win during the Chase.
NASCAR also put a premium on winning during the 26-race regular season to qualify for the Chase. In NASCAR’s view, consistency and earning points were fine, but they wanted drivers pulling out all the stops to win races.
But the concept clashed with reality by the time NASCAR arrived at Homestead-Miami. Newman did not win a race this season, yet he made the Chase’s final four. Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson won a combined 12 races but were eliminated.
In effect, the result was no different than baseball’s playoffs this year, where the Angels and Dodgers compiled strong regular-season records but were jettisoned in the first round.
The average TV rating was unchanged at 2.6 through the first nine Chase races compared with a year earlier, and viewership rose 3% to an average 4.32 million, according to Nielsen figures released by ESPN, which carried the races. Ratings for the Homestead-Miami race were expected Tuesday.
NASCAR also dodged a bullet. After all the talk of putting an emphasis on winning during the Chase, Newman came within one position of winning the Cup without a victory.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France said before Homestead-Miami that the Chase had “the right balance” between winning and consistency, and that he had no problem if Newman had won the title.
Regardless, NASCAR couldn’t have scripted the finale at Homestead-Miami much better. The top driver in the Chase could have finished, say, 20th or 25th in the 43-car field and still won the title if the other three had fared worse.
But the four Chase drivers were in the top six for much of the race and the playoff’s outcome came down to the end.
France was delighted.
“It was winner take all,” he said Monday on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio. “We’ve never had that kind of thing possible.”
France also has said it was unlikely NASCAR would make any major tweaks to the Chase in 2015. That’s fine by Hamlin.
“Let’s just leave this thing alone for a while,” Hamlin said.