NASCAR’s new Chase format entered the weekend with four possible championship outcomes. Two of them, regardless of fan loyalty, would have caused a major, Grand Canyon-sized rift in NASCAR history. Ryan Newman, who wound up one spot short of a title, would have had the fewest top-5 finishes for any champion since 1949. Denny Hamlin, who came just as close, would have been the first to hoist the trophy despite missing a race in NASCAR’s modern era. It was a 50/50 coin flip, where over 400 miles CEO Brian France and officials knew tails might turn the momentum of the last few weeks into a tailspin.
Lucky for the sanctioning body. Homestead came up heads. Not for Joey Logano, who would have won the Chase under NASCAR’s old format (2004-13), and made every rookie mistake in the book for a driver fighting for his first title. No, the sport did one better, producing the one champion it could (pun intended) under this new, NCAA Basketball-style format.
“This format was made for us this year,” the driver said while becoming just the fourth first-time champion in the 11 years of NASCAR’s Chase. “We had to build a new team. We made some mistakes along the way.”
Boy, did they ever. For all the good Harvick has done this season, the No. 4 team stumbled at times during the 26 races leading up to the Chase. It bungled pit stops every which way, which caused Harvick to openly question their performance. This fall they were ultimately replaced with Tony Stewart’s No. 14 group as Stewart-Haas Racing chose to make a swap. The team’s experience might have saved them over the long-term but it was a short-term decision that raised eyebrows.
On-track, everything that could go wrong, for a new team, simply did during races Harvick could have easily won. Think back to the first seven races, four of which produced ugly finishes of 34th place or worse for this group. There was the blown engine at Texas, an embarrassment after qualifying third; a wreck at Bristol while running inside the top 5; mechanical troubles at Vegas after running second. Looking back, Harvick’s five-race win total could have easily doubled without these frustrating rookie mistakes.
Why tear down the champion? Because it was NASCAR’s new format, in the form of this Eliminator Chase, that was able to give Harvick the title he earned. His season, on paper, is eerily similar to that of Rusty Wallace, in the mid-1990s when he won the most races but never seriously challenged Dale Earnhardt for the championship. Consider these numbers for Wallace…
1993: 10 wins, 2,860 laps led (topped the series in both categories)
Dale Earnhardt: 6 wins, 1,475 laps led (a distant second in both categories)
Earnhardt who took the title rather convincingly because Wallace’s team suffered the same type of poor luck. There were wrecks not of his making, catastrophic engine failures and the same type of “stub your toe” moments Harvick went through early in the season. In both cases, the team could have folded under the pressure. Instead, they molded together.
“The relationship that we have, and nobody ever really ever has pointed a finger and been mad at each other,” the driver said, crediting a large part of the team’s success to crew chief Rodney Childers. “It’s just we may get frustrated, and you just walk away, and next thing you know you’re working on a solution.”
That solution, for this team came in the form of a playoff. Harvick, like Wallace, would have been dead in the water without a Chase. Yes, people race differently but unofficially, without the postseason he would be 86 points behind Jeff Gordon. Even in the Chase, there were situations, like his wreck at Martinsville, that would have left Harvick hopelessly behind Logano in points. The only way he could move on is with a format that wiped the slate clean, mid-September and provided a mix of wins and consistency.
“It turned out you had to go for broke just to be competitive,” he added. “And I think that’s really what this format has turned every week into over the last 10 weeks is if you want to win, you’ve got to – if you want to win the championship, you’re going to have to figure out how to win races.”
And win Harvick did, despite words with Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth along the way. In all, the No. 4 car took three victories over the final ten races, including Sunday at Homestead, and held off his closest challenger in Newman. That left him with 2,137 laps led, tops in the series and almost 600 laps ahead of second-place Keselowski. Harvick’s eight poles also led the series, and his five wins? Only Kes had more. The stats show he was in position to earn a title; two wins in the final two races led to that ultimate goal.
“The game has changed between 2011 and 2014,” said Harvick’s co-owner Tony Stewart, celebrating his first title since his stirring victory that year over Carl Edwards. “Every stage of this Chase has proven to be so difficult. You look at how much percentage-wise each of these races, what that really means to your opportunity, and you factor that into the equation, and then you factor in how many things that you can’t control. But then like Rodney said, things that you do have control over, the ability to do that is what gets you to these situations and scenarios.”
Harvick and company, in the midst of making mistakes, calculated correctly how they could thrive under this new playoff format. And while we could have ended up with a winless champion, the kiss of death for this major change, NASCAR’s gamble wound up just like Harvick’s. The winner of this format was the team rivals respected, rightfully pointed out as one of the favorites in early September, and capitalized on the trophy where the old format would have left them out early. It’s a big win for the sport, after a rollercoaster ten weeks filled with mixed reviews, mixed martial arts and ending with an energy one can only hope carries over into 2015.
“You know, what I wanted to do is grow the sport, put us in a stronger position for years to come,” said Keselowski when asked about the Chase. “I’m not really looking at it in a short-term perspective. I think sometimes we get caught up in too much of the rhetoric around what a champion should reward, whether it’s consistency or wins and those things. And I think I might be a little bit too close to the fire to provide an objective answer. But really all I care about with the format is that it takes the sport to another level for years to come. I think the jury is still out on that, but it looks like it’s going to be good.
“That’s the whole point, and that’s what I think everyone has rallied behind is a format to grow the sport. I don’t really have an answer for you in that sense until I think we see some numbers, for good or bad, but I don’t have any complaints, either.”
Fans on Sunday, even if their favorite driver didn’t win had to search to find a reason for complaint. Yes, Jeff Gordon was eliminated but it’s not like Harvick was a doormat. Ditto for Logano, who had the best car all Chase but was eliminated by his own self-induced mistakes. Harvick, even if listed as a compromise candidate by haters of the format, is more than a worthy champion in 2014. Is it an unparalleled success? No, you can’t go there. But a sold-out crowd, likely solid ratings and even Michael Jordan at Homestead to support it shows this format has enough backing to stay.
Now, it also has a worthy champion, both on paper and through on-track performance. That’s got to have Daytona Beach smiling this Monday morning.