NASCAR’s chaotic merry-go-round is about to take its last ride at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where four contestants will take a spin Sunday trying to become the 2014 Sprint Cup champion.
The new rules of engagement do have a bit of a game-show feel, with three elimination rounds that began with 16 drivers. It’s now down to four after nine frantic weeks of dramatic twists and turns, and the occasional melee along pit road. So step right up, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, and give it a whirl.
That’s not the lineup most folks expected. One of them will become a first-time Cup champion. The most notable drivers bounced from the “Championship 4" include Brad Keselowski, who has a season-high six victories in 35 races. There’s no Jeff Gordon, with four victories and 14 top-five finishes.
But you will find Newman, who has yet to win a race this season.
Such are the dynamics of the elimination rounds. While Gordon and Keselowski were playing bumper cars in Texas going for a victory that would secure advancing to the final round, Newman was a little farther back, staying out of trouble. That’s how he has rolled most of the season.
So maybe it’s a tad confusing that in season where NASCAR put a premium on winning, the champion may leave the track without a victory (all Newman has to do is finish ahead of the other three contenders).
“A championship is still a championship, and the trophy doesn’t have the number of wins underneath it,” Newman said. “If we win the championship, that would be great in any form or fashion.”
Newman didn’t do anything unethical to get here, even though some fans may take umbrage with Newman’s last-lap bump of Kyle Larson in Phoenix, which sent Larson’s car into the wall, allowing Newman to gain the one crucial point that put him ahead of Gordon for the final spot.
“You got to give Newman credit,” Gordon said. “He deserves to be there.”
Gordon says there could be a better way to advance in the elimination rounds. He suggests having a separate scoring system for the 16 contenders, apart from the other drivers, in which the highest finisher in the first round would get 16 points, and the lowest would get one. The highest finisher of races in the next round would earn eight points, and so forth.
“Everybody feels like you should be able to have a bad race or a bad moment and still find a way to make it,” Gordon said.
Despite Gordon’s impeccable resume, his scope of influence is limited. Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and chief executive, gave the new format rave reviews Friday, hinting only at slight tweaks in the system moving forward.
“It’s all about the balance,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to have a system — and we don’t want a system — that ignores consistency. There’s 43 teams who all compete every weekend on the same track.
“It’s not a basketball tournament or something else, obviously; it’s auto racing. So we need to reflect the idea of consistency. The question is: ‘Do we have the right balance?’ And I would say that unmistakably we do.”
NASCAR isn’t going to quibble about the circumstances involving the Final Four. It has been great for business, as interest and intensity have amped up during the elimination rounds. It seemed that Keselowski was intent on banging into every car that got in his way, and every driver wanted a piece of Keselowski in postrace cool-downs that turned into hot messes.
NASCAR got what it wanted, including the possibility of a winless champion.
“In a very self-serving and selfish manner, I say that I’d like the wins to amount for more, but I don’t know how to do that,” Keselowski said. “We can always add more layers to everything we do but I’m not sure that makes everything better.”
The rules have been set. The merry-go-round is set for one final spin in Homestead. No sense in arguing whether some drivers deserve to be along for the ride.