Hold up. Is Brian France’s master plan for The Chase actually working?
Five races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, five different winners have tasted victory — filling out, most likely, five of the 16 allotted spaces in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The motivation this year has been clear: win at least one of the first 26 races and, as long as you’re within the top 30 in points, you have a shot at the championship. The bad luck that’s hit the rest of the season, up to that point suddenly becomes irrelevant.
France would love to tout the motley crew of victors as an example that the new Chase is working — and, to an extent, it might be. Already in five races, we’ve seen plenty of gambles (what’s up, Landon Cassill?), daring moves for the win and generally more excitement from those drivers who do reach Victory Lane. Teams don’t seem as content to ride around in third if they have a shot at more, a facet that could easily show up more often the closer the series gets to Richmond in September.
But wait, what happened in the first five races last year? Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch?
Oh look, the same pattern of “different winners” happened back in 2013, too.
So even under the old rules, where wins were not as “valuable” a commodity an array of different competitors won to start the year. That streak ended on the sixth race, at which point Johnson rattled off his second win of the season. Parity, which had been prevalent up to that point seemed to tail off a bit from there.
Make no mistake, though — despite the fact that this pattern totally happened last year, recent history indicates the Chase’s growing emphasis has, at least at first, yielded a varied crop of winners. Though 2012 had four different winners in the first five events, 2011 — the first Chase for which drivers received bonus points entering the postseason for their amount of wins in the regular season — also featured five different winners to start off the year. In fact, 2011 extended that number to six, with the first repeat offender coming at race No. 7.
Before the Chase began emphasizing wins a bit more, the feat was only accomplished once while the Chase was in play — back in 2005. In total, over the last 20 seasons, 2014 marks just the eighth time we’ve gone 5-for-5 to start in terms of Victory Lane.
What does this mean for NASCAR’s top tier? Unless the winning from different drivers continues, an assortment of victors to start the year isn’t exactly new, nor is it incredibly rare. The racing may seem to be on a new level this season, and maybe it is. But the likelihood of seeing a repeat winner in the first five races is, for the time being, just a little higher than the likelihood of seeing a different winner every race, and that’s momentum that could easily swing with a few more seasons like this one in the near future.
Again, that’s not to say France’s new format isn’t having some sort of effect on the standings so far in 2014. Even the drivers themselves have mentioned the calming effect an early win has on one’s season, making the next however-many races until September carry slightly lowered expectations. The main issue with jumping to the conclusion the new Chase has instilled a new drive for success in its competitors is that even under older formats — and before the Chase even existed — this phenomenon happened, too. We’re not looking at a totally new concept here of parity seeping into the early part of the season. It’s where the series goes from here, both in 2014 and beyond, that will end up becoming more of a deciding factor as to how the “new Chase” plays out amongst the competition.
Here’s some food for thought to close things out. In the last 20 years, the series has had two seasons during which a sizable amount of winners were completely different to start the year. It most recently occurred in 2003, when it took nine races before a repeat winner came out on top. Before then, it took ten races to reach the same feat back in 2000.
If 2014 can head towards that type of “record,” if the series can continue this streak that’s now two years in the making, there’s a clear pattern to build on. Come 2015 and beyond, perhaps we can call Brian France’s new Chase a success in getting the series’ drivers more desperate for wins at all points of the year.
But for now, historically speaking, it’s just more of the (sort of) same.
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Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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