Welcome to the new NASCAR: DW offers his thoughts on the new Chase

Darrell Waltrip says the new Chase format has changed the way drivers race and how they think about competing for the Sprint Cup Series championship, but he also has some suggestions for the sanctioning body. 

Jerry Markland

As we all know, NASCAR came up with the new Chase format, and it was something totally revolutionary for our sport. It’s nothing we had ever experienced before.

The implied theme and catch-phrase became "win and you are in." What that meant was there was the possibility for 16 drivers to win and make the 2014 Chase field. Due to multiple winners this season not all 16 that qualified had won a race. Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth did not earn a win in the regular season, but were high enough in the points to qualify.

This certainly has created excitement throughout the whole year. Just think back to Feb. 23 of this year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. not only wins the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500, but he, his team and his sponsors pretty much already knew he was locked into this season’s Chase.

One of the big things I have picked up on is that this new format has changed the way these drivers race. This new Chase has changed everything. I’ll be honest; this year I’ve heard drivers talk about something for the first time in decades — the "Driver Code." It’s an unwritten set of accepted rules about how drivers race each other among the driver fraternity.

I don’t think I heard it more vehemently discussed than after Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon got together at Texas. All Brad was doing was his job. He was trying to advance into the final four race at Homestead this weekend. He knew that, Jeff knew that, everyone in the grandstands knew that, and the media all knew that. It was one of those moments in time when Brad was simply doing his job.

He saw an opening and he tried to seize the opportunity so that he, his team and his sponsors could be in the finals. I don’t want to hear about "well he did what he had to do." No, he did his job.

We saw it again Sunday when Ryan Newman all but ran over rookie Kyle Larson because his job demanded he get his car into the championship race. So Ryan did his job by dive-bombing his car down onto the apron at Phoenix, he moved Larson out of the way and Ryan now has a legitimate shot this Sunday at his first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. That’s his job, and Ryan did it Sunday in spades.

This Chase format has changed everything from the unwritten gentleman’s agreement to how you race each other and, to what Jeff Gordon made reference to, "the rules of engagement."  This new format has changed all that. There are currently 10 races in the Chase and as a Chase driver you have nine opportunities to advance into the Championship race. It’s been truly the most pressure-packed and exciting Chase we’ve ever had.

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Are there things I wish NASCAR would tweak to it in the offseason? Absolutely there are a couple things I’d like to see addressed. If the theme is "if you win you are in," then why isn’t it that the four drivers with the most wins of the first 35 races be the four that are racing for the championship in Homestead? One race, winner take all.

If you look at 2014 for example, that would be Brad, who has the most wins at six, Joey Logano at five wins, and then NASCAR would need to create some type of tie-breaking protocol as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kevin Harvick all have four wins. Maybe the tie-breaker would be who is highest in points — in which case using 2014 as our example, that fourth spot would go to Kevin.

Now understand, that is not a slam at Ryan Newman for being in this year’s championship race with zero wins. That man has made the most of the opportunity presented to him. He’s made the Chase qualifying procedure work to maximum capacity for him and now, like I said earlier, Sunday he is one of only four drivers with a chance to win it all.

I’m just suggesting that in the future, why not have the championship race, the final race of the season come down to the four drivers who have won the most races in the season to that point. It’s the best vs. the best in one race for all the marbles.

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So the Chase format has changed everything. We’ll never go back to the way it was. It’s also made the drivers redefine what is acceptable on the race track.

One thing that will never change will be drivers who wear the black hats and drivers that wear the white hats. Rivalries and feuds, plus an occasional shooting of the gap when your job requires it on the track, will make sure we never run out of a supply of good guys and bad guys.

I think knowing that you have to have the four most wins of the season to make it to the championship race will only increase the pressure and intensity from what we’ve already seen this year. Go back to my example of Dale Jr. already knowing after winning this year’s Daytona 500 that he was pretty much guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Well that’s great, but now while they would know they were at least in the Chase, they’d also know they needed even more wins to qualify for the championship race.  

So that’s one of my suggestions I hope NASCAR will consider for next year. My other suggestion is that once you are eliminated from the Chase, you join all the other non-Chase drivers and are competing on a level playing field for the best possible points finish. Right now the worst a Chase driver can finish the year is 16th in points and the best a non-Chase driver can finish is 17th in points.

What if one of those non-16 Chase drivers gets on a hot streak? Right now still the best they can finish is 17th for the season. I just think a non-Chase driver shouldn’t been limited to 17th spot as the best they can give their team and sponsors if they get hot. Why can’t they be rewarded for performance and have a chance to possibly get to fifth?

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I see two possible benefits. After the season is over, it sure is a lot better going to your existing sponsors or potential new sponsors saying you finished fifth as opposed to saying you were capped at only being able to finish 17th. The other thing is, as we all know, fifth spot in the season-ending points pays a race team a heckuva lot more money than 17th plays. So why not give all those not in the Chase a little added incentive?

So that’s just a couple minor tweaks I hope NASCAR will consider this offseason. Just remember though, this is not your old NASCAR. Things have changed and this is the new NASCAR. There is a group of aggressive drivers out there that this format fits perfectly. I love how this year has gone and what NASCAR did in the offseason to improve our sport.

So it all comes down to Sunday.

The pressure is on for Denny, Joey, Ryan and Kevin like never before. It’s been since Budweiser won it’s only NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and I just happen to know the cat that did it, so I have somewhat of a vested interest in that No. 4 car Sunday. At the same time, it’s been quite a while since the No. 11 won a championship as well, so I have a vested interest there too.

In all fairness, I wish the best of luck to all four drivers. One of them is going to walk out of Homestead with their first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. I don’t care who you talk to in whatever sport out there, to a person they will tell you that the first championship is always the sweetest.