By Matt Weaver (JOLIET, Ill.) — On the eve of the inaugural race of the Chase Grid format at Chicagoland Speedway, it now appears as if there are more ways than ever before to win championships in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Prior to the introduction of a playoff, drivers were tasked with consistency over 36 races to win the crown. Victories negated bad results but they were not a requisite to contend for the championship. Consider that @MattKenseth won the 2003 title with only a single victory and a 10.3 average finish, leading NASCAR to adopt a playoff format in the first place.
During the first decade of the Chase, victories were given extra weight and seeding for the playoffs were based on the number of trips to Victory Lane during the regular season. As a result, perennial winners, like @JimmieJohnson, held a major advantage entering the final 10 races of the season.
All told, the near-flawless Johnson and his 48 team won six of the 10 championships during the initial Chase era, mostly due to their ability to win in bulk, having scored 60 wins from 2003-to-2013. But Johnson was one of the first to admit this weekend that the new format could see a driver win the championship without winning a race in the Chase, if not altogether.
“The possibility is real,” Johnson said. “Against the way the whole premise of the Chase has been created and winning is so important, I feel that it’s good to have an opportunity to reward consistency. Let’s be honest: Everything about our sport revolves around consistency. Our races are marathons. We race (36) times a year, and to have it not be represented in our championship, I think would be wrong.”
To Johnson’s point, his teammate and four-time champion, @JeffGordonWeb says that perfection is no longer necessary in the Chase for the Championship.
“I think in the third round, you’re going to need to be near-perfect but you definitely don’t have to have 10 perfect races now,” Gordon said. “The third round and at Homestead, you’ll have to be at your absolute best. But the other ones? You can slip a little bit here and there if you’re strong enough to claw your way back.
“It’s definitely a different championship than we’ve seen in different years.”
The championship standings will reset after each round for the drivers that advance, meaning a team that just barely moves on would have an equal shot at again advancing as the top-seed from the bracket they just advanced from. As a result, it’s conceivable that a still winless Chaser, like Kenseth, could still top-10 himself into the championship race at Homestead and go all the way, a fact that he acknowledges.
“I still think this championship will require you to execute and be at the top of your game,” Kenseth said. “I feel like we need to win because of the momentum and confidence it will give us but also because that’s the key to advancing. So do we have to win? No. But we didn’t necessarily have to win before either.
The 2011 champion and number one seed in the Chase, Brad Keselowski, perhaps summed it up best.
“There are a lot of different ways you can win with this format,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one way you can win and I don’t think there’s one way you can lose. (Becoming champion without winning a race) is certainly one way you can win but it’s not the only way.”