Race Weekend Central

Dare to Dream

For the most part, I’m a nice guy.

I like happy endings. I enjoy romantic comedies. I want to see good things happen to good people. I feel it’s acceptable when good ideas bring good results.

Except for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

When it comes to NASCAR’s elimination-driven post-season of ten races, I dream of a public relations nightmare.
Not in the fire-and-death-from-above context; my dreams follow a more subdued form of evil.

I dream of having a non-winner take the 2015 Sprint Cup title.

Ever since Brian France linked winning races to earning a place in the Chase and an opportunity to win the points championship, I’ve fantasized about seeing this logical strategy turned onto its head. We came perilously close last year when Ryan Newman made it into the “final four” at Homestead and finished second in the Cup standings to Kevin Harvick.

Ryan Newman got to Homestead with zero wins and five top-five finishes. Kevin Harvick got there with five wins and 14 top-five performances. The firesuit-wearing elephant in the room was their respective average finishes for the year. While Harvick took the Cup title with an average finish of 12.9 for the 2014 season, Newman slightly bettered that number with a more consistent average run of 12.7 after Homestead.

And all this after “Rocketman” navigated the newly-instituted elimination system that dropped big winners like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch out of the championship picture.

Sadly, Newman’s winless 2014 championship was not to be. So now I’m setting my pessimistic sights on this weekend at Chicagoland….

Maybe my pessimism stems from growing up with NASCAR during the years of the “old” system when a driver like the late Benny Parsons could win the championship after scoring just one victory. Same for Matt Kenseth when he took the Cup title back in 2003.

Consistency has always been the key to winning championships, regardless of the sport. Nowhere has this been more the case than in NASCAR, especially during the decades when every race allowed every driver to take their best shot at winning the big prize. Granted, the competition back then was often limited; there were some years when only three or four teams had a legitimate chance to win races on any given weekend. At least there was an opportunity to stay relevant in the point standings without needing to win races, and without the top-16 cutoff that we have today.

To me, the new championship format circa 2004 seemed to be more of the same: a handful of teams racing for the title based on the depth of their organizations and the depth of their pockets. And that was during the “old” Chase, before the win-and-in method was introduced a decade later.

Sure, the emphasis on needing a win has upped the ante for Cup teams. No one knows this better than Aric Almirola. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver used his red-flag win at Daytona in July of 2014 to make the top-16 in points and qualify for last year’s Chase. Almirola is the same RPM driver who finished fourth last weekend at Richmond, wound up 17th in points, and missed this year’s edition of the Chase for the Championship.

All the more reason that I want to see a non-winner take the title at Homestead.

Not that there’s a healthy roster of potential spoilers. Ryan Newman is again in the mix, but so are first-timers like Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard. Jeff Gordon made the Chase without a win in 2015, so might he be the first to show-up NASCAR at its own game?

What a way for Gordon to end his storied driving career: to win his fifth title without ever visiting Victory Lane during his final season. If Gordon could win by finishing second to race-winner Tony Stewart at Homestead, the finale would put a unique spin on NASCAR’s need to have a “Game Seven” moment in November.

Achieving such an accomplishment, however, will be difficult. Might this be the year when we see the “Final Four” coming from one owner (as in Joe Gibbs)? Could this be the year when a driver who’s missed eleven races waives off adversity and takes the title? Could Jimmie Johnson win his record-tying seventh? Might Junior win his first?

If we can dream about the above scenarios, why not consider the one rattling around in my head since last November? Jeff Gordon even mentioned that the Chase format gives consistent top-five teams hope for the championship. As long as a team survives elimination between rounds, that team has a shot at winning it all.

I recognize that last year’s Chase for the Championship had its fair share of exciting moments. The post-race shoving matches and angry sound bites put NASCAR Nation squarely on America’s Monday morning sports pages, and that’s ultimately good for the sport; even negative publicity counts as publicity.

To me, there was also something exciting about having a driver like Ryan Newman battling for the title despite having a golden goose egg in his win column.

Call me pessimistic, but I’d like to see such a finale again this season, only with a winless driver outrunning his three closest rivals for the title. Consistency over 36 races should count for something.

To me, a winless champion would make for a happy ending.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via