If Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is any indication, NASCAR’s new championship structure is doing exactly what the sanctioning body’s executives hoped it would do: Encourage drivers to make bold moves and take big risks to win.
Faced with a car that was good but not great at the 1.5-mile Vegas track, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Steve Letarte decided that their only chance to win was to stay out during the final caution flag and hope they could stretch their fuel enough to win.
Earnhardt took the lead on Lap 223 of 267 when all but two other cars pitted. Earnhardt led for the next 44 circuits, but his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ran out of gas half a lap from the end of the race and was passed for the victory by Brad Keselowski. While Earnhardt’s fans were doubtless deeply disappointed, it was a thrilling end to the race.
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And it was one that would have never happened last year.
Last year, drivers qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup by being in the top 10 in points at the end of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season or by getting one of two wild-card slots for winning a race and finishing 11th to 20th in points. This year, 16 drivers will make the Chase. Basically, any full-time driver who wins a regular-season race and attempts all the races is virtually assured of making the Chase.
Because Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, he could afford to throw the dice at Vegas and gamble on running out of fuel. Asked if he would have tried that strategy under the old rules, Earnhardt said, "Absolutely not. I can say that without a doubt."
Even though he lost the race and was clearly frustrated when he climbed from his car, Earnhardt thought the new championship format was a big hit.
"It was very exciting. I think the way the new format is — nothing is perfect, right? — but it definitely is showing it has tons of positives, and it’s better as far as entertainment for our sport," Earnhardt said. "Yeah, it gives us freedom, and it’s nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today, even though we knew our odds weren’t good. We really shouldn’t have made it, and we didn’t, but we got to try because of the new system. So yeah, I think it’s pretty cool."
Race-winner Keselowski agreed.
"That chance that Dale and Stevie took with the 88 car was way out there, and it was a good, risky move on their part because they had nothing to lose because of this format," said Keselowski. "I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, and I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because believe me, I’m not scared to take them, and I know Paul’s (crew chief Paul Wolfe) not, so look out. It’s going to be a lot of fun."
The interesting part, though, is this brave new world of win-and-you’re-in racing is only getting warmed up. Just three races are in the books so far for 2014, with three different winners.
When the NASCAR season moves past the first dozen or so races — and presumably has 8-10 different winners — you’re going to see some really wild, go-for-broke finishes at places like Dover and Pocono and Michigan. And who knows what kind of mayhem awaits on the Sonoma and Watkins Glen road courses?
Like Junior said, nothing is perfect.
But the way the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is unfolding is a huge improvement for the sport.