NASCAR on FOX reporter and former championship crew chief Jeff Hammond joins FOXSports.com editors Jared Turner and Joe Menzer for the latest edition of Bump ‘n’ Run, where the week’s hottest topics in NASCAR are debated.
1. The new Chase elimination format seems to have plenty of folks who love it and others who seem to dislike it. Where do you stand?
Jeff Hammond: I’m loving it right now. I really think NASCAR has achieved what they were looking for. I think all four drivers who will race for the championship at Homestead represent a diverse group, and they each earned their way in. You have guys who have won their way in, and you have guys who did it by being consistent or just doing whatever they needed to do to survive and advance along the way.
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Jared Turner: How can anyone not like it? Sunday’s race at Phoenix — in terms of the actual racing on the track — wasn’t that exciting. Kevin Harvick basically dominated wall to wall. But what created major excitement was the numerous points/championship scenarios — most of which would have never existed without the new elimination format.
Joe Menzer: I think we’re all in agreement here on this one. And the other thing is, even for those who have said they don’t like it, they seem to be watching and it has stirred interest and debate. I think more people are paying attention at this point in the season than in recent years past, and it’s because of this new format.
Hammond: The buzz around the water cooler that I’m hearing — from North Carolina to Connecticut to Las Vegas to Texas — it’s been positive. They’re seeing a side of NASCAR they’ve never seen before. They’re seeing passionate drivers, crew chiefs and crew members laying it on the line before the race, during the race and after the race.
Turner: If there’s one downside to it, it’s that a guy like Jeff Gordon with multiple wins misses the Championship Round, while Ryan Newman — with no wins — gets in. Seems to contradict the whole suggestion that wins are NOW more important than ever. Oh sure, they are more important than ever for MAKING the Chase. But making the Championship Round is another matter altogether. As in the past, consistency is still No. 1.
Menzer: I don’t know that it’s No. 1. But it certainly has gotten Newman this far.
Turner: The bottom line, whether NASCAR wants to admit it or not, is that a driver can win the championship under this format with nary a victory to his credit. And that concerns me a bit, and should concern NASCAR a lot more.
Hammond: I understand the critics’ perception as far as Jeff is concerned. But I would like to point out that he knew the rules, just as Ryan Newman knew the rules. And when you look at Texas, I think Jeff’s team left points on the table and that contributed to them not advancing to Homestead. You can’t blame Newman for that.
Menzer: That’s been overlooked, I think. You’re talking about how AFTER the contact with Keselowski and Gordon’s tire going down, the crew kind of panicked. They lost a lap when they could have avoided it, costing them valuable track position.
Hammond: I think they made a mistake on pit road. If they could have avoided it, that could have kept them on the lead lap and earned a couple of positions that would have been pivotal in possibly getting them through the Eliminator Round and on to Homestead.
Menzer: Yeah, they lost their heads a little bit. And you can’t do that in these types of pressure-packed playoff situations. Performing under pressure, even when you think you’ve been dealt a raw deal, is all part of putting a championship run together. As I tell all the kids I coach in basketball, even if you don’t like a foul call or a non-call, you’ve got to keep your composure and play through it.
Turner: Call me crazy — and I’m not one for NASCAR changing the rules of the Chase every year — but I think, going forward, NASCAR needs to tweak the system to require that the four finalists all have at least one win. In what other sport do your championship contestants not have a win in the playoffs or over the course of the entire regular season? You won’t find such a sport.
Hammond: Then why don’t we just pick the champion at Daytona like WWE does and not even race the season? I mean, come on. The rules are the rules and they were put in place before the season. Everyone knew them.
Menzer: I’m tired of them tweaking the system. It is what it is. Leave it alone for a while, for goodness sakes, so people get used to it and aren’t so confused every year when the Chase starts.
Turner: Let’s just hope that if Ryan does win the championship in Homestead that he’ll also win the race. That will be NASCAR’s only salvation, in my opinion.
Menzer: As much as I don’t necessarily like the thought of a champion with no wins, Newman being in this has added yet another unforeseen element that makes it kind of cool. He’s the classic underdog going into this race.
Hammond: Any other sport, people love an underdog. Why not NASCAR?
Menzer: So Jared, it’s a two-on-one fast break here and you’re getting dunked on!
Turner: Come on, Joe. Newman would be an underdog even if he had a win, right?
Hammond: Jared, it’s OK if you have your opinion. Our opinion is that we don’t agree!
Turner: You can believe ol’ Ironhead would have put a bumper to rookie Larson, and not thought twice about it. All bets are off when it comes to the last lap — and when such a big prize is at stake.
Menzer: Yet on social media and in a few other circles I’ve seen, some fans and even some media have suggested that Newman was wrong and even perhaps should be banned from the Chase. Ridiculous.
Turner: Must be the fans who think a winless driver has no place in the Championship Round!
Hammond: The way I look at it, some people are applauding Keselowski going for a win and criticizing Newman for doing what he needed to do to race for a championship, or vice versa. You can’t have it both ways. Either they both were right or they both were wrong, and I think they both were right.
Turner: That’s absolutely right, Jeff. What Keselowski did was no more right or wrong than what Newman did. Just let the boys race!
3. How did you make out on your pre-Chase Championship 4 picks and who do you like now to win the championship?
Hammond: I am currently at 50 percent. I was lucky enough to pick Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano correctly — and I would have been at 75 percent if Gordon had gotten in. I still like Harvick for the championship. He has been my pick all along.
Menzer: Sadly, my final four consisted of Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski — and Logano. So I’m only batting 25 percent.
Turner: Holy cow. I’m trying to find my bracket!
Hammond: Holy cow. It’s only four drivers!
Menzer: Yeah, and holy cow, if you’d clean off your desk once in a while, maybe you’d be able to find something, Jared. But geez, four drivers you ought to be able to remember.
Turner: That seems like ages ago when I filled that out. Look at what all has happened since then: Two big fights, Tony Stewart exonerated, Joe Menzer’s hair turned even more gray, almost white … you get the picture.
Menzer: My original pick to win it all was Keselowski. As much now as I’d like to pick Logano, seeing as he’s my only guy left, I don’t see how anyone can go against Harvick.
Turner: OK, I finally found my bracket.
Hammond: Come on, Jared. Get caught up!
Turner: Looks like I got three out of four wrong. I picked Gordon to win it (yet another reason why I think a winless driver shouldn’t be in the Championship Round).
I also picked Keselowski and Junior in my final four. Wrong and Wrong.
Hammond: As far as Harvick, they come in here holding the hot hand. And I think in Kevin and Rodney Childers, I see a driver and a crew chief who want it as badly as I’ve ever seen a driver and a crew chief want a championship.
Turner: The good news? I picked ol’ Happy Harvick to be among the Championship 4.
Menzer: Well, I’m glad you finally got caught up in the conversation. But those picks are bad and you still finished last.
Turner: Let’s talk just a little more about who’s going to finish first. Kevin’s going to be hard to beat — no question — but the only driver among the final four with a win at Homestead is Mr. Hamlin. And he’s done it not once but twice. So make of that whatever you may. Bottom line: To write off Denny would be a big mistake.
Menzer: Good point on Hamlin, Jared. Once he got through to the Eliminator Round, the tracks really started to play in his favor. Too bad it’s too late to revise our picks, although I still don’t think Hamlin will have enough for Harvick at Homestead.
I’m just glad you finally made a good point, and a timely one at that!
Turner: I try, old man. I try.
VIDEO: Kevin Harvick talks with FOX Sports 1’s NASCAR Victory Lane about his big win at Phoenix