When NASCAR tweaked its Sprint Cup Series points system again for the 2014 season, the hope was that the winner-take-all format in the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway would virtually guarantee an exciting finish to the season.
And by changing the criteria for making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it was thought that the racing might be a little more intense during the 26-race Sprint Cup regular season. But the results so far in 2014 — six different winners in six races, along with a host of great finishes — surely have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
How rare is it to start a season with six different winners in the first six races? Going back to 1985, it’s only happened five times and the most recent occurrence was in 2003, more than a decade ago and the last year before the Chase format began.
There’s ample reason to believe the streak of new winners might go on a while longer: Last year’s top two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are winless so far in 2014, as are six more of 2014’s top 12 finishers in points.
I believe we’re going to have more than 16 winners.
Bristol winner Carl Edwards
Over the last three decades, the longest stretch of unique winners came in 2000, when the first repeat winner of that season was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 11th race.
Without question, NASCAR’s rules changes have ratcheted up the intensity this season. Under the new championship format, those who make the Chase will be up to 16 drivers who have won races in the Sprint Cup regular season, attempted to qualify for every race and are at least in the top 30 in points. If the regular season points leader doesn’t win a race, he will make it in, too, although that appears to be a non-issue at the moment. Should more than 16 drivers win in the first 26 races, those who make the Chase will be the race winners with the most points.
Some drivers believe that there could be more than 16 regular-season race winners, although that has never yet happened in the Chase era.
"I believe we’re going to have more than 16 winners," said Carl Edwards, who won at Bristol two weeks ago. "It feels that way. It feels like there are more competitive cars."
Since NASCAR went to a 36-race schedule in 2001, there has never been a season with more than 16 different winners in the first 26 races. In fact, in the 13 seasons that NASCAR has had a 36-race schedule, only five times have there been more than 16 winners during the entire year.
Nevertheless, drivers aren’t willing to concede that one race victory is a guaranteed ticket to the Chase.
Kurt Busch, who on Sunday at Martinsville became the sixth different Sprint Cup winner this season, said his Stewart-Haas Racing team still has work to do — especially after Busch posted an average finish of 30.25 in the first four races of the year.
"We have a long way to go, though, to get up into that top 16 in points, and once we get there, let’s keep digging," Busch said after his victory in the STP 500. "Consistency now is what we’ll focus on. A win is a win. If we get a second win, that’s when I would call ourselves locked in. But we have this consistency battle that we have in front of us, and I’m up for this challenge, especially when you have all this weight lifted on your shoulders with a win so early."
Johnson, the six-time champion, doesn’t have a victory yet and is focused on his normal routine.
"When you look at the stats and you have 16 different winners in a year it’s a pretty rare occurrence," Johnson said during the series recent visit to Auto Club Speedway. "I still think that points are every bit as important as they have been until you get to Homestead. Even when you get into the Chase itself the top guy in points will advance in pretty much every scenario or every scenario, even the final one race at Homestead. So points are still the focus in what I’m looking at."
For now, the streak of different winners stands at six and Johnson and a bunch of other drivers will look to make it seven different winners in as many races this weekend, when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the Duck Commander 500.