Last year NASCAR changed the rules for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The goal of those changes was simply to make the racing better. Without exception the racing in 2014 was better than it has been making these changes a big success. There was some initial controversy on how teams made the 16 car Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Win and Your In: This is the one part of the rules that caused the most consternation among fans. The thought was that a team might luck into a win then steal the championship without really earning it. In reality last year showed that will probably never happen.
Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger had lack luster regular seasons finishing 22nd and 23rd respectively. They each won a race to put them into the Chase field. Almirola won the July race at Daytona and Allmendinger wining at the Watkins Glen road course. The reality is that those teams did not improve during the regular season so their performance in the chase was only marginally better. Almirola finished the season 16th or last of the Chase drivers. Allmendinger did improve a little but finished 13th.
Kasey Kahne was also not having a good year. He finished the regular season 13th in points and would have missed the Chase had the rules not been changed. He made it with his win one week before the last regular season race at Atlanta. Just like Almirola and Allmendinger Kahne’s team did not improve and took that into the Chase finishing 15th.
Consistency: This is how Championships are won. Consistency, out pointing your competition has been the foundation for Championships in NASCAR forever. With the new rules it looked like Consistency as a Championship strategy was dead. 2014 proved that that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, and Greg Biffle entered the Chase by being the top drivers in points who did not win a race. They finished the regular season 6th, 8th and 10th respectively. Of the three Matt Kenseth with his ten top five finishes looked like he would take Consistency into the Chase and possibly win a Championship. Note all three in spite of not winning would have made the Chase under the old rules.
The reality was that while Matt Kenseth maintained his consistency Ryan Newman’s team steeped it up in the Chase finished second in the race at Homestead behind Champion Kevin Harvick to end up second in the Championship. They showed that one could race old school out pointing the competition and win a championship without winning a race.
Missing a race or more: Another controversial part of the rules to make the Chase is where a driver can miss a race due to health or other issues, then win a race and with NASCAR’s approval make the Chase. The only requirement is that the driver has to remain in the top 30 in points. Gone are the Iron Man days, where a driver would race hurt to get the points and stay in the Championship.
Denny Hamlin had to miss the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway due to a piece of metal in his eye. NASCAR approved that he missed a race due to this medical problem and Denny Hamlin finished the regular season 19th in points. More importantly Hamlin won the May race at Talladega Superspeedway putting himself in the Chase.
Hamlin’s team would have been 17th or perhaps as high as 14th in points had he not missed that race. They proved that this rule works enabling teams to salvage a season. More importantly they proved that an ever improving team that did not have early consistency can also win a Championship by peaking at the right time during the Chase. Denny Hamlin finished the season third in the Standings.
Wrap up: What was learned last year in the regular season is that racing for maximum points is still a winning strategy. The new rules for making the Chase only provides additional options. The option to salvage a season if you happen to miss a race. The option to make the Chase while vastly improving your team throughout the regular season. Make no mistake about it your team must be at the top of its game regardless of how it made the NASCAR Chase when the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins.
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Feature Photo Credit 301215 Richmond International Raceway