What will happen during the final seven races of the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series season? Since this is the first year that NASCAR has used a Chase to determine the XFINITY champion, nobody can say for sure how the end of the season will unfold. But if the Sprint Cup Series is any guide, the Chase is sure to incite a lot of drama among the drivers and the fans.
Racing for a championship is a pressure-packed situation, with or without a Chase. Just ask Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip about their title fight in 1979. Or how about 1992, when the top five drivers in points entered the last race of the season within 100 points of each other? As for the Chase Era, the pressure to perform that Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards felt must have been extreme.
Is the elimination-style Chase really different? Although the sample size is small, the 2014 and 2015 Chases appeared to ramp up emotions in drivers in ways that we have never seen before. NASCAR, or at least Brian France, seems convinced that the newest version of the Chase is distinct and far greater than any previous iteration. During the offseason, France revealed just how much confidence he has in the Chase by instituting the format in the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series. That decision brought a sudden end to 12 years of the sanctioning body insisting that the Chase only befitted stock car racing’s highest level. Clearly, the people who run NASCAR see something better in this Chase, even if fan reception continues to be mixed.
The most obvious difference between the current Chase format and any past ones is that there are now multiple points resets within the postseason. In the past, Sprint Cup drivers would lose points over the course of the Chase and drop out of the championship battle for all practical purposes. Sometimes the points loss was gradual. Other times a driver might have one really bad race that put him out of contention. Regardless, under the first three versions of the Chase, drivers did not know when those points losses would happen.
The elimination-style Chase, however, does just what the name implies. It sets up hard and fast deadlines of which all drivers are aware. The competitors know that they must win or accumulate enough points by the end of a series of three races, or their Chase is over. Having these races in which the drivers are aware ahead of time that their championship hopes could end is what creates the extra drama and makes the newest version of the Chase different.
That said, it has become pretty clear that the fans do not have the same confidence in the Chase as NASCAR does. Complaints against the championship format vary depending on who you ask. Some of the issues include: too many points resets within the postseason; one race being an unfair way to determine a season-long championship; too much drama that overshadows the actual racing; and above all else, too many attempts to manufacture excitement. It is true that some fans are fine with the Chase the way it is. Yet it is fair to say that there is a disconnect between what NASCAR wants its end of the season races to look like and what the fans want to see.
So what will happen in the inaugural NXS Chase? In terms of conflict within NASCAR’s second-tier division, 2016 has been pretty quiet. Ryan Reed and Ryan Sieg, both of whom made the Chase, had a brouhaha in the pits at Pocono, but have had no further issues since then. Ty Dillon also expressed his displeasure with Alex Bowman after getting in a crash at New Hampshire. The biggest controversy, however, was probably Darrell Wallace Jr.’s Muppets tweet after the July Daytona race, which left Wallace angry at NASCAR officials rather than another driver.
There is still a high probability that there will be some hurt feelings in the Chase. The NXS postseason is shorter than the Sprint Cup version. It has four less drivers and one less round. It also includes a lot of younger drivers who are trying to secure their futures in NASCAR. Nobody in the Chase field has ever competed for a championship under this format. In fact, Elliott Sadler is the only driver who has competed in any kind of Chase before now. NASCAR’s NXS tagline about how “names are made here” has been the butt of jokes from time to time. Yet with the relative amount of inexperience in this Chase field, drivers will be looking to distinguish themselves through strong runs in the Chase. The postseason really does have the potential to make names.
Moreover, decent performances will not be good enough to stay in the game. Most of the drivers who qualified for the Chase have far better equipment than the drivers who got left out. Not many Chasers have won this year, but most of them probably did not feel a lot of pressure week in and week out to protect their Chase spot. All of that changes now. Drivers will be on more equal footing equipment-wise, and the battles to stay in the Chase will be much closer than they were to get in the Chase.
No doubt it all looks great to NASCAR on paper. Putting young, hungry drivers together in an all-out championship fight will be a spectacle for fans. The circumstances of the spectacle, however, set up a postseason that will probably leave the racing as an afterthought and some drivers with an ax to grind. So when emotions boil over during the first ever XFINITY Chase, do not say that you were not warned.
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