The newly redesigned Chase for the Sprint Cup format has already created its fair share of drama, while also eliminating a number of potential title contenders.
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has already been eliminated. So too was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch had a great start to the Chase, but was eliminated after a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.
At the same time, Ryan Newman currently sits second in the Chase standings with no victories and only four top-five finishes all season — two of which came in the last two weeks.
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Matt Kenseth is also still in title contention despite not having a single victory to his name this year.
The drama and intensity created by the new Chase format have certainly generated more talk and more attention around the sport of NASCAR, but is it what the drivers like? Is this truly how they wish to crown a champion?
Not according to Johnson.
With no shot at scoring the title this year, the man who has dominated the Chase era believes it is time to change his thinking about the format and what it takes to win a championship.
"It has seemed bizarre since the onset. I, though, feel that I need to take a different approach and think of it differently and think of what is good for the sport," Johnson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. "This is really being put back in the fans’ hands. At the end of the day if there are more people tuning in and watching, we are creating the drama, sponsorship is in the sport, then it is what we need to do. I made that conscious decision when (NASCAR chairman) Brian France called me and told me where things were going for this year."
Much like his Chase competition, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin feels the drivers want a much different format, but understands NASCAR had the fans in mind when developing the format.
"If it was drivers — we’d base it off of a 36 week year. We want the entire year to be a part of the picture," said Hamlin. "It’s a green-white-checkered (flag) every three races for the race fans. Anything can happen. This is — you know we keep resetting points and things like that — and obviously this year has really helped us make it through and keep giving us a shot at a championship. But, when you have a short season – three-race season like that — you allow the possibility of some of your guys that have dominated the entire year having one bad race and then not being part of the championship.
"I don’t know if it’s what the fans wanted, but it’s what the fans have got," he said. "Really, it’s been pretty exciting. It should be exciting from the fan’s standpoint. The last lap at Talladega — it was who was in, who is out. And I’m sure Phoenix will be the same. It will be exciting, but it is tough to say we would want it this way if we had to choose."
One of the biggest ambassadors of the sport, Johnson realizes that for all parties involved, economically, change was needed in order to attract and keep sponsors, put more fans in the seats and have more folks tuning in to watch on the weekends.
"This is the decision they made, and we have certainly seen the drama," he said. "It seems like attendance is going in the right way, ad buys are going the right way and TV viewership is up. Is it what we all as racers think should happen and is it the best way to go about, falling back on the history of our sport in determining a champion? No, but we have to pay attention to who is sitting out in the stands, in my opinion."
While Johnson is no longer contending for the title, that does not mean his season is over by any means. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has won the last two Chase races at Texas Motor Speedway, and with nothing to lose should be a factor come Sunday.
Now that the disappointment of being eliminated from the Chase has subsided, the dynamic duo of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is simply focused on having fun and stealing wins from the Chase competitors. As their performance waned over the past few weeks, the back-and-forth between Johnson and Knaus has become testy at times, raising questions about the longevity of the relationship.
"We haven’t had much fun in the last couple of months," Johnson admitted. "We have always performed better when we are having fun and make better decisions in that space. So we are there. We are trying to enjoy these last few races. Unfortunately, Martinsville was kind of short-lived. We had a fast car and got down two laps and had some damage and that is our model this weekend. Go out there and have fun and just try to end the year strong, but be relaxed and get ready for 2015."
VIDEO: The end of the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus era?