The first of three rounds, the Challenger Round, of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup begins at Chicagoland Speedway. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards shared their thoughts and approaches to the new format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The new Chase for the Sprint Cup format consists of three rounds, The Challenger, Contender and Eliminator round. Each one consists of three races each and at the end of each round four drivers will be eliminated. The last race of the season at Homestead Miami Speedway the last four remaining drivers in the Chase will settle the Championship on the Track. The highest finisher of the four will win the Championship.
When thinking of the Chase and the prospects for Elimination after each round, it is easy to get caught up in what ifs. Especially when making it to the last race is the only way you will get the Prize. Jimmie Johnson laid out how this new format will be intense for some teams.
Johnson said, “I think it goes in multiple directions depending on your races. If you have poor finishes in the first and second races and you’re not looking strong in points, it’s really easy for that third race; you need the Hail Mary to make something happen. If you get off to a quick start and you’re solid in the points, of course you’re going to take an opportunity to win, but you know you’re covering the base on points. I think there are going to be multiple strategies that take place, depending on performance. And then, after three races, you’re going to have to re-rack and start it over again.”
As much as “re-rack” and start over again sounds good one may not make the re-rack if performance is subpar especially as the number of drivers in the rack get reduced after the first couple of rounds. This probably isn’t a concern for six time champion Johnson, the hallmark of consistency.
Matt Kenseth seems to think there is no special strategy for winning in the new format. Quite simply just keep doing what got you there.
“I don’t really know what to expect in the new format. I say this a lot, but there’s no magic formula to winning no matter what the format is, really.” Kenseth added, “It depends on what other cars do. Last year, it would have been good enough if Jimmie (Johnson) would have ran a little bit worse because we finished second. I don’t know how it’s going to work out, I think you just take it one week at a time and get the best results you can and at the end of the day hope that they’re good enough to go to the next round and so on.”
Jimmie Johnson agrees with Kenseth but thinks it just might take a little more. You just might have to step it up some so you remain in the hunt.
“But I really feel that it isn’t any different than the way you’ve had to win championships in the past. You have to battle that fine line of risk versus reward. And with as competitive as our garage area is, you can’t leave a half-second on pit road.” Johnson added, “You can’t leave a couple tenths on the race track. You’ve got to somehow dial-in 100 percent and no more.”
Dialing in 100% is exactly what it will take. Carl Edwards is expecting everyone in the Chase to step it up or rise to the challenge. Could that mean somehow raising the bar such that 100% isn’t enough?
“I hope it is a sign of what is to come. This is the Chase and it is time to step it up. I think you are going to see the best out of everyone. The best they can put together using the things everyone has learned throughout the year.” Edwards added, “We talked a lot about it yesterday and the day before with all the media but nobody really knows how this will play out. Somehow, someway people find a way to get a little extra speed once the pressure is on.”
Jimmie Johnson thinks he just needs to do what it takes to stay alive and make it to Homestead Miami. It will require having better and better finishes as the Rounds get completed.
“So, over the ten races, a lot can happen. And this year, with the format changing as dramatically as it has, the opportunity for somebody to stay alive and really; you just need to be hot towards the end, if not really hot in one race. So, we’ll just see how it all plays out.”
Looks like the strategy will be to stay on your game and perhaps step it up a little until Homstead. If for some reason you are not successful at that, then its “Hail Mary” time. Race the wheels off your car and win a race. Either way NASCAR fans can expect some all-out racing in order for these drivers in the Chase to win a Championship. It means each and every Chase race is really important. The last race of every round just might be more important, especially for those teams in trouble for making it to the next round.
Brian Berg Jr. is a NASCAR writer for BehindPitRow.com.
Feature Photo Credit: 301470 Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images