Saúl Berríos-Thomas | Layout Editor
The first season under the new format of the Chase for the Cup in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series has sparked lots of drama and great racing.
There have been fights on pit road and plenty of high-speed crashes, but the story of the season has to be the tension among the sport’s best racers. This tension has been the key to creating drama unlike anything the Series has ever seen.
The playoff format selects the top 16 drivers from the points standings and eliminates the rest of the field from title contention. This means if a driver wins at least one race, he is almost guaranteed to reach the playoff stage. Only three drivers from the 16-driver Chase didn’t notch a win heading into the postseason. The season was competitive, as many different winners won from week to week in the early stages of the season.
But that was just a precursor for the ultra-competitive playoff. The first three races – Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover – form what is called the Challenger Round. After Dover, the field was cut to 12 drivers and the next three races are held in Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega, in the Contender Round. The Eliminator Round consisted of three races in Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix with the field at eight drivers. The final race of the year will be held at Homestead-Miami on Sunday, and only four drivers will have the chance to take home the title. After each round the points are reset, so basically if a racer wins, he advances. If he misses even one lap, his chances of advancing are in trouble.
This first season has already created many memorable moments. One of the most breathtaking moments was in Talladega. The famous racetrack was the site of dramatics that couldn’t have been scripted better in Hollywood in the final race of the Contender Round on Oct. 19.
Heading into the race, former champions Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Kesolowski were all out of contention from a points standpoint. Only one of them could advance with a win. Kesolowski turned in a gutsy performance and took some big chances. He was able to pull out the win in a close race and advance to the next round. This meant Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson were eliminated, which sent shockwaves through the racing world.
A similar situation unfolded this past weekend at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick was in last place heading into the final race of the Eliminator Round. He qualified so well, he earned the third place in the starting grid. He then proceeded to lead 264 laps on his way to a runaway win. That win secured him one of the four spots that will have a chance to win the title.
The final four contenders racing for the chase are Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick. The driver that finishes in the best spot will be crowned this year’s champion.
One complaint critics have regarding the new format is that with the finals race, someone could win the title while finishing very far back from the top of the race. While this is possible and anything can happen in a race, this is unlikely because the four drivers in the final have been among the top competition all year.
The final race this Sunday will be exciting, and the qualifying on Friday will be more crucial than ever. Kevin Harvick has the hot hand just three days removed from his first-place finish in Phoenix, but Hamlin, Logano and Newman are all capable of turning in championship caliber performances as well.