BY CARLOS MENDEZ
FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/MCT
NASCAR is looking for some drama this year.
Ten years after introducing a playoff format to stock car racing for the first time, the sport has a plan to pump in drama.
This year, four drivers will go into the final race of the season with a chance at the championship.
It might be the four best drivers all season, it might not. It might be the best driver and three underdogs, it might be all underdogs.
Whatever happens between now and the Sunday before Thanksgiving in Miami, when the final race of the season is run, it is what NASCAR is seeking in Sprint Cup racing — more go-for-it finishes, more surprise, more drama — as the sport heads to Florida this week to get ready for the Daytona 500, which takes place on Sunday, Feb. 23.
“There will be a lot of pressure on everybody to just up their game,” vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said when NASCAR unveiled the new playoff system — a “Chase Grid” of 16 drivers for the final 10 races that will be reduced to four for the season finale. “Who knows what strategies will unfold?
“Because it’s obvious that it will be different strategies moving forward to try to get a win, to try to advance to that next level. When it comes down to the last race, we all want a moment where we have to have head-to-head competition.”
‘Game 7’ moments wanted
NASCAR wants “Game 7” moments, where the championship hangs in the balance not only into the final week, but the final laps.
It’s what the “Chase for the Championship” was supposed to do. But only once did it provide a title at the wire — in 2011, when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tied for the points lead at the checkered flag in Miami, requiring a tiebreaker to give Stewart the championship.
“That was a dog fight,” Pemberton said. “It’s what you live for. It’s what you want to see. I think this will just allow us to see more of that action.”
Last year, there wasn’t much fight at the finish. Jimmie Johnson went into Miami needing only to finish 25th or better to secure the championship.
And while Johnson’s victory was a historic sixth in eight seasons for him, leaving him one shy of NASCAR’s all-time greats Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, it did nothing for the search for drama in a sport that has long tried to reward both consistency and victory over the course of three dozen races.
“You have to compete at a higher level,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said.
“Riding around and being pleased because the current format rewards consistency, those days are going to be pretty much over.”
A look ahead
The new days in NASCAR begin with the 56th Daytona 500. Here is a look ahead at the season in store:
The new playoffs. It’s an elimination format now. At the end of 26 races, 16 drivers will be eligible for the championship. Every three races, four will be eliminated from title contention until four are left for a winner-take-all finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The first of the four to cross the finish line is the new champion.
The drive for seven. Jimmie Johnson has six championships. Only two drivers in history have seven, and they are big names — Petty and Earnhardt. Johnson, with six championships in eight years, already has the top equipment and resources on his side. He is at his peak, and he may be there a while.
Dale and Steve. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming off a good year. He is more confident in himself than ever. But one of the main sources of that confidence, crew chief Steve Letarte, is leaving for TV next year. This is their last chance together to put Earnhardt in position for a run at a championship.
Patrick’s evolution. Danica Patrick dipped her toe in Sprint Cup two years ago. She ran a full schedule last year, but with awful results. It’s clear she has a lot to learn about racing stock cars versus driving fast, as Kyle Petty suggested last year. Her performances this season will show how much she gained from a full season.
The return of Smoke. Guess who’s back: three-time champion Tony Stewart, who knocked himself out of competition last summer with a broken leg suffered in a crash while he was moonlighting in sprint cars. He says he won’t be 100 percent for Daytona, but he’ll be close enough.
How the Chase works
After 26 races, 16 drivers are eligible for the championship.
Every race winner and the regular season points champion, if winless, qualify.
If more than 16 drivers have won, the 16 with the best point totals qualify.
If fewer than 16 drivers have won, the best point totals fill out the field.
After every three races in the Chase, three drivers are eliminated.
A win in any Chase race qualifies a driver for the next Chase round.
The final four drivers have their points reset for the season finale.
The highest finisher of the final four drivers is the champion.