When the checkered flag flew on the Hellmann’s 500, eight drivers sighed in relief. Not just because they were safe from the unpredictability of Talladega; that was part of the emotion, for sure. But more importantly, two of their chief championship competitors were no longer a threat for the title.
Going into the Round of 12, everybody assumed that Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski would ease through the round as they pressed on toward Homestead. Both drivers sported four wins – two of Truex’s coming in the first round of the Chase – and with two intermediates and a plate race it was expected that they wouldn’t just survive – they would thrive.
Truex’s first two races brought decent results, a 13th and 11th-place finish, putting him well above the cut line heading into the final race. For Keselowski, a wreck the week earlier at Kansas, in what he had called a “layup” race, had put him below the cut line. No big deal for the Team Penske driver, right? After all, he was the plate king of the season, winning two of three races including the Talladega race in the spring.
For a while it looked like he’d deliver. He led 90 laps, including the one prior to the lap that Truex’s engine expired, dropping the No. 78 down the order and off the Chase Grid. But on lap 146, following a brief stint up front with trash on the grille, Keselowski’s engine arrested as well, knocking him out of the Chase.
Just like that, two of the championship favorites were out, just because of one measly issue. Is it really fair that they won’t be able to compete for the title any longer?
Like the Chase or hate it, these are the rules that Sprint Cup drivers are playing under. By those rules, of course the eliminations are fair.
Annoying? Frustrating? Disheartening? Absolutely.
Sixteen teams qualified for the Chase knowing that every three weeks four of them were getting kicked out. And while most every team believed it could make the Championship 4 – and certainly believed the odds were in their favor to do so – they knew the cuts would be unpredictable. Just ask Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray this year. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last year. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon the year before.
This year, it happened to by Keselowski and Truex. The silver lining to the whole thing is that these were mechanical issues and not a wreck. It would be a much more bitter pill to swallow for both drivers had they been eliminated due to an accident not of their causing, getting caught up in someone else’s mistake like Busch was in 2014. A broken motor is rare these days, but both drivers can keep their head up high that they did everything they possibly could to keep from being dropped.
And while the two drivers are out of this version of the Chase, they wouldn’t be faring better in the other format of the playoffs.
If we were to use the original Chase format, 10 races to determine the winner, Busch would currently be leading the points by four over Johnson. Matt Kenseth would be third, Joey Logano fourth … you wouldn’t find Truex until sixth place, 18 points behind. Keselowski would be in ninth, 41 points behind the leader due to his two recent poor finishes.
Even in the old, whole-season-determines-the-champion format, Truex would be long out of contention. All those wrecks, pit road miscues, and other issues that have plagued the 78 team would have added up, leaving Truex eighth in points, 116 markers back from leader Kevin Harvick. For Keselowski, he’d be second in the points but back-to-back DNFs – his only on the season – would have dropped him nearly a full race out of the lead, 37 points behind the No. 4.
By comparison, then, it certainly looks like the elimination-style Chase gave Truex and Keselowski more of a chance to win the title. So while it hurts that both won’t be in the Round of 8 as title threats, they lasted a lot longer than they would have under old formats.
Now all they need to do is go and play spoiler. After all, winning is everything. A nice trophy at Martinsville would do both good.
Both Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. had an incredible first round of the Chase, Keselowski finishing in the top 5 in all three races and Truex winning two out of three. Why does that suddenly not matter anymore? It’s not fair to teams that perform well but have one or two bad races that doom their season completely.
Yes, in other sports the season before the play-offs doesn’t matter when they start. But this is NASCAR. Drivers aren’t competing head-to-head for race wins, they are racing against 39 other drivers every week.
One of the biggest criticisms I’ve had of the Chase since it began is the lack of incentive for drivers after they are either locked into the Chase or locked into the next round. Jimmie Johnson won two early season races, virtually guaranteeing himself a spot in the Chase, then did a whole lot of nothing for the next 20 or so races. Last round, Johnson won the first race at Charlotte, locking himself into this round. For the next two races it didn’t matter if he finished fifth or 35th, he was going to go to Martinsville tied in the points with seven other drivers.
NASCAR should give incentive and rewards to teams that run well. I’m not saying to remove the “win and in” nature of it, just make the other races in a round matter. The best way to do it I feel would be to give two kinds of bonus points for results made in the round prior, save for the championship round at Homestead (Which would reset the final four to 4000 points as it does for the system in place now). First, four bonus points per points position (Where a driver is in points) following the completion of a round. Second, eight bonus points for winning a race in a round. For example, here is how the points reset would look now with this system:
1st Jimmie Johnson: 3036
2nd Joey Logano: 3028
3rd Kurt Busch: 3024
4th Kevin Harvick: 3016
5th Matt Kenseth: 3016
6th Kyle Busch: 3012
7th Carl Edwards: 3004
8th Martin Truex Jr.: 3000
Now, you may notice that Truex is there instead of Denny Hamlin. Why is that? Because Truex’s performance in the second round and the bonus points he would have earned would have more than made up his gap on Hamlin following Talladega.
This system rewards great performance in the Chase week in and week out. It’s still possible for a driver to win a race every three weeks and make it to Homestead just on that alone but a driver who wins three Chase races anyway probably should make it to the championship race.[yop_poll id=”25″]
Applying this system to the first round would eliminate the need for a bye for the regular season points leader (If you lose over 40 points in round one to a driver who was 13th in the regular season’s standings, you don’t deserve to make it to round two). It makes points matter again without becoming the only thing for teams. Finally, it ensures drivers like Truex and Keselowski have at least something to show for their success in the regular season and in the Chase rounds.
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