NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: The Playoffs, Final Four Predictions & Format Explanations

ONE: LET THE PLAYOFFS COMMENCE

There’s part of me that is still very uncomfortable in referring to the next 10 weeks of racing as the NASCAR playoffs. By the same dint, using the term regular season for the first 24 weeks is equally disquieting. Not least, I suppose, because it’s still the entire field that races, unlike in other major American sports where the winners progress and the losers pack up and head home.

But the playoffs they are, I suppose, whether I choose to call them that or not.

Semantics aside, I’m actually really pumped for the next 10 weeks. None of us can be sure how the format will play out, but I think it will be fascinating to watch. I realize there are plenty of detractors out there – especially those folks who still wish the champion were crowned based on the points results of a 36-race season, but those days are long gone and the Chase (albeit in varying formats) is here to stay.

So why not try this route, especially with the added bonus of three stages of elimination and the win-and-you’re-through approach? Credit to NASCAR for giving it a go.

TWO: FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Since we’re about to get underway with the 2014 iteration of the Chase, I figured I’d give you all my predictions so you can bash me with them later when I’m completely off-base.

First up I’m picking the two Team Penske drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Both have been lightning quick all year, with Keselowski picking up a series-best fourth victory last weekend. And over the past few weeks, Logano has been the model of consistency.

Rewind a year and you see Keselowski missing the Chase altogether and Logano essentially ending with his awful finish in the first race of the 2013 Chase.

My other two drivers are Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson – Harvick primarily because he’ll get the wins when he needs them and Johnson because, well, just because he’s Jimmie Johnson.

THREE: YOUR 2014 CHAMPION: JOEY LOGANO

My tip for the title, however, is Joey Logano.

In short, Logano has had an excellent season – his best yet in his seven-year, 209-race career. Assuming he holds serve in the final 10 races, he’ll finish with career highs in just about every category. He’s already lead more laps (721) and had more wins (three) than ever before, and with a starting position of 8.5 and an average finish of 13.2 – better than in any other year those two personal milestones should fall, too. And he only needs one more top 5 and four more top 10s to equal his career bests.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Joey Logano: suddenly one of the favorites for the Sprint Cup title. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

It’s not been the easiest ride for Logano since his much-hyped, over-heralded arrival in Cup, but he’s finally living up to his Sliced Bread moniker and, like Keselowski did in 2012, he’s peaking at the right time. Some of this you can put down to sheer Penske power – he’s looked lightning fast all year long – but much of it is also confidence in his own skin. He had big shoes to fill stepping into Tony Stewart’s ride at Joe Gibbs Racing and it wasn’t until he made the move to Penske that he truly started to find his groove. His relationship with Keselowski has undoubtedly helped and with a talented head wrench in Todd Gordon he has all the pieces he needs to succeed. Don’t be surprised to see him emulate Keselowski and win it all come Homestead.

FOUR: MY KIND OF TOWN, CHICAGO(LAND)

Next up and race No. 1 in the 2014 Chase is Chicagoland Speedway, a cookie cutter mile-and-a-half, D-shaped tri-oval.

Defending race winner Matt Kenseth will certainly be looking for a spot in Victory Lane (for the first time in 2014) and it’s also worth noting that in 2011 (Tony Stewart) and 2012 (Brad Keselowski) the winner of the race went on to win the whole shebang.

To date, Joe Gibbs Racing has the most overall wins at Chicago with a total of four: Tony Stewart (twice), Kyle Busch (once) and Matt Kenseth (once) and you can bet Coach Gibbs would be ecstatic to see that number tick over to five this Sunday, especially given how the season has progressed for JGR overall (mediocre at best.)

I don’t hold out a lot of hope that this will be an interesting race – but here’s hoping that I’m completely wrong and we kick of the 2014 Chase in fine style.

FIVE: CHASE FORMAT EXPLANATIONS

A quick word on the new TV campaign for the Chase: so far, a two-minute explanation video and one TV spot have been released as part of a broader campaign that will include a social media push and five TV commercials. A NASCAR official release has described it as the “most engaging marketing campaign in the history of the sport” and while that might seem a little like hyperbole it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

“We made a bold decision at the beginning of the season to make our Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup all about winning,” said Brent Dewar, NASCAR chief operating officer, in the release. “Now that we’re just weeks [well, a week] away from the start of the Chase, NASCAR, working closely with ESPN, is going to market with a creative platform that is just as innovative and reflective of how important this moment is for our sport.”

And they’ve certainly got that right. This Chase is really important. If we don’t see good TV viewing numbers – and especially so for Homestead, which should be the most watched race outside the Daytona 500 – then it’s hard to know what NASCAR can do to reverse the trend. It’s certainly something to watch as we head into the playoffs.

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kb

Who knows, each of the top 5 have their strengths and weakness. The other factor is luck, some have engine problems not of their own making, others not. Some have gotten caught up in others mess, others have been very lucky. We shall see. Don’t like The Chase and this latest version. The top without a question deserve to be in the position they are in.

JohnQ

One of your writers recently posted that NASCAR yanked a poll off the official site when it indicated that 80% of fans did not like the Chase. Pssst, a good many of us still could not care less. Articles like this strike me like the attempts of oblivious high school cheerleaders trying to phony up some excitement in a deadly dull game. The Chase is a contrived irrelevant mess unlikely to produce a legitimate champion. Put down your Pom poms and give us an honest evaluation. There is just something about the truth. You’ll feel better.

Bill B

Wow, Logano, that’s a somewhat bold prediction (Biffle would be really bold).
As for the chase, I hate it and I wish I could jam it down Brian’s throat. The thing I am most annoyed with this year is the stupid bracket system that they are trying to sell as some sort of “sweet 16” NCAA equivalent. Stupid on so many levels.
I will NEVER accept the chase, in any format, as the best and fairest way to determine a champion in this sport.

Carl D.

Not sure how you could leave Jeff Gordon out of your top four. He’s been in the hunt at almost every race this year and his team is getting the job done on all fronts. With Kevin Harvick’s lack of consistency and less-than-stellar pit stops, I’d replace him in your top for with Gordon. As for Logano, I predict a second place finish. This is his close-but-no-cigar year.

midasmicah

I’ve seen photos of the “play-off” cars. Lots of yellow trim. To the true nas$car fans (I’m a decades long fan) this joke of a format has not been and never will be accepted. They might as well put the other 27 cars on a separate track because if they as much as breathe on one of the “play-off” cars, Brain dead Brian and mediocre mike will bring hell’s fury down on them. And after the atrocious borefest in Richmond, we know get cookie cutter Chicago.

Keith

This whole “Chase” just feels like a big mess. Maybe it’s fun to have a playoff system no one understands in college football but come on. This is ridiculous. We need to have commercials run all week explaining how we are getting a champion fed to us that hasn’t earned it. Maybe I’m too old school but consistency should still be the name of the game in NASCAR. Thus far I can’t think of any single moment in 2014 where I sat back and said, “wow, that never would’ve happened if we didn’t have the NFL playo.. I mean Chase starting after Richmond.” Each race that was supposed to be a free for all, with action to entice Brian’s new fans and us old school fans alike, has been average at best and a dud at worst. As a Brad Keselowski fan I’m very happy he won Richmond. I even enjoyed seeing him put a whooping on the field. But where was any of the “action” the new Chase promised us? I wish I was finished with this rant but unfortunately I have another major gripe. How can it be that a driver could potentially be 2nd in points after Richmond but without a win the best they can finish the season is 17th in points? Giving some credit to the Powers That Be, at least they announced following drivers being eliminated their points would be reset to where they were plus those earned during the rounds they competed in. Thus ensuring someone knocked out in round 1 can finish as high as 5th. But really why can’t they just stop shooting themselves in the foot. Even when they stumble into a good idea they manage to mess it up. After being eliminated, points should be reset to post Richmond standings plus points earned in the Chase. No disrespect to the 43 or 47 teams, but do they really deserve to have a guaranteed final season finish in the top 16 when the 15 team sits 11th in points right now and they sit 22nd and 24th.

36 Races. 43 Drivers. 1 Champion.

Was that really so bad?

Guest

I get irked by NASCAR’s hypocrisy about it. They are afraid that they will have a Cup Champion that hadn’t won the race all season which is why they made winning so important. Yet just last year Austin Dillon won the Nationwide championship without a win (the first that has ever happened in any NASCAR series) and yet we don’t have the Nationwide Chase. If the Chase was so important and effective then why has it not been instituted across all series? The point system was changed and it was across all three series, rules changes are made across all three series, yet the Chase is only a Cup “perk”.

Guest

Can I laugh if the eventual Champion doesn’t win a race in the Chase? Or even the entire season? This whole attitude of “Winning is the most important thing” I think is getting insane. You know what some days you just don’t have a car that can win, ask the Nationwide Series how that feels when Kyle is in the race., and you have to switch to a best finish strategy. But they way it is now the finale is “Winner-Take-All”, no it’s not, it’s finish better than the other three drivers in the Chase. If they wreck on lap 1 and finish 41-43 respectively, you’ve won the Championship no matter where you finish.

Steve

I don’t know how you can predict who will win the championship. Its a complete crapshoot and there is a good chance the most deserving driver will not be the champion. I wonder how Vegas will handle to odds on the Chase considering all it takes is one of them getting caught up in someones mess and they are done.

I will be watching the Chase but only the same way I would watch a ticking time bomb. You know its going to blow up, you just don’t know when.

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