by Ryan Isley
Sometimes change is good. And sometimes it isn’t. Then again, there are times when it can be both.
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been an example of the latter. Prior to the season, NASCAR officials announced that there would be some changes made regarding driver eligibility for the Chase and also the number of participants in NASCAR’s “playoff” system.
New this season is that the Chase has expanded from 12 drivers to 16 drivers. It could be 17 or 18 drivers if NASCAR decides to change the rules on the fly again this season, but I digress. The change in eligibility would be that the first 15 spots in the Chase are reserved for drivers with the most wins in the first 26 races who were also in the top-30 in the points standings. Under the old system, the top 10 drivers in points would gain entry into the Chase along with the two drivers from 10th to 20th in the standings who had collected the most wins on the season.
With just five races left before the 2014 Chase field is set, 11 drivers have been to victory lane, with eight of the 11 all but wrapping up their spot in the Chase. The other three drivers – Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch – are sitting in positions 21-23 respectively and will either need another win or some help to earn their spot, as there are 12 drivers ahead of them who have yet to win this season.
The fun part of the new format is that a driver who may not be having the best season can erase what has already happened with a win, or guys like Almirola can throw a wrench into everyone else’s season with a win. If the Chase started right now, drivers such as Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne would not be in the field, despite having more points than Almirola, Hamlin or Kurt Busch.
If there are 15 different winners in the first 26 races, the 16th spot in the Chase would go to the driver with the most points who doesn’t have a win. Matt Kenseth (668 points) leads Ryan Newman by 26 points for that last spot should there be four or more first-time winners in the next five races. For Newman, his best chance would be to either win a race or hope Kenseth wins one, opening up that wild card spot for him.
The more likely scenario is that there will be less than 15 winners, meaning the remaining spots in the Chase would go to the winless drivers with the most points. If the Chase field were to be set now, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Greg Biffle would be joining Kenseth and Newman as drivers who made their way in based on points. However, Larson leads Biffle by five points, with Kahne just a single point behind Biffle and one ahead of Austin Dillon. If there aren’t any other winners this season, the last two spots in the Chase could be high drama as the series heads to Richmond on September 6th.
As exciting as the new format is for drivers to earn inclusion into the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, we would have also had much drama had the system not changed.
Under the old format, drivers in the 8th through 12th spots this season would be fighting for the final three spots had the format had remained the same. Carl Edwards (618 points), Clint Bowyer (617) and Kyle Busch (611) would currently hold the final three spots with Kevin Harvick (608) and Kyle Larson (595) grinding to catch them. Harvick would be in the best position, as his two wins are the most among drivers outside the top-10 and Busch has one win which would be a safety net, but Larson would be just 16 points behind Busch for that final automatic spot. Larson is winless on the season and that would be his only way in without a victory.
The other drama under the old format would be that race for the second wild card spot. While Hamlin, Almirola and Kurt Busch all have wins, none of the three would currently be eligible because they are outside the top-20. Hamlin would be in the best position as he trails 20th-place McMurray by just four points. But all three would have to either win another race or hope that drivers such as Larson, Biffle, Kahne, Dillon, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart or McMurray go winless over the next five races.
And then of course, there is one thing that would have remained the same under both formats: the race for the No.1 seed. All drivers who make the Chase will have their points set to 2,000 and will have three additional points added to their total for each win. Right now, there are three drivers who have three wins (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson) and four drivers with two wins (Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick).
While people didn’t like the old system or didn’t like the new system when it was announced, no matter what NASCAR throws together it always seems to create interesting storylines at the end.