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Drew Bonifant

Sprint Cup preview: A new Chase headlines a list of points to watch going into 2014

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr., left, and Danica Patrick get together on pit road before the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr., left, and Danica Patrick get together on pit road before the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

  • Jimmie Johnson, left, talks with Austin Dillon during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

    Jimmie Johnson, left, talks with Austin Dillon during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr., left, and Danica Patrick get together on pit road before the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
  • Jimmie Johnson, left, talks with Austin Dillon during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

The Sprint Cup season hadn’t even begun when NASCAR made it clear what the year’s top story would be.

The ever-changing sport underwent its biggest makeover in a decade in late January, dumping the Chase for the Cup as fans knew it, ripping up the familiar playoff system and putting in a whole new way for drivers to battle each other for the circuit championship at the end of the year.

Now, more drivers (16 to be exact) make the new Chase – but more get knocked off with the waves of elimination. More drivers get a chance at the trophy, but more will see their hopes vanish early.

The result is that when the season kicks off with today’s

Daytona 500, for the first time, all 43 drivers on the track will have a legitimate shot at the postseason. One win, one good day gets you in.

The impetus for change was groomed by a 2013 season that was challenging for NASCAR and its top names. Perennial chasers Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, two of the Sprint Cup’s most popular and successful drivers, couldn’t even make the Chase due to injuries that kept them out of races and made them unable to rack up points. The Chase quickly unraveled into a two-person race and another runaway win for Jimmie Johnson. And there’s no forgetting the ugly controversy from Clint Bowyer’s alleged intentional caution that resulted in manufactured Chase spots for Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, a penalty for Martin Truex Jr. and weeks of questions for Michael Waltrip Racing.

The new playoff format, which cuts the Chase field by four drivers every three races to set up a winner-take-all (or, best-remaining-driver-take-all) final race, does solve those issues. Missing races like Hamlin and Stewart did isn’t a problem; the driver essentially needs a win in the remaining races to get in and make up for lost time. Under this system, there would be no cause for Waltrip and Bowyer’s shady plan. And with the final race leaving the title up for grabs, there’s a guarantee of several drivers, rather than one or two, going into Homestead with expectations of leaving with a trophy.

If NASCAR’s goal was to improve the drama of the Chase, it succeeded, but the trade-off is that the regular season loses importance. The winner of today’s race will all but wrap up a Chase spot, and will pretty much be able to coast for the remaining 25 races. The pressure to race well consistently throughout the summer is out. That pressure will return in the fall, but in the meantime, the game is all about the checkered flag.

Who benefits?

Don’t expect the new Chase to drastically alter the Sprint Cup’s balance of power. Under this system, the previous system or the Winston Cup’s points system, Jimmie Johnson remains a favorite, due to his unrivaled ability to challenge for wins every time out. Count perennial contenders like Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Hamlin among the drivers who should have no problem with the new system, as well.

The new format should reward consistent drivers – provided they make the Chase fray to begin with. A driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, who has racked up top-10s but had trouble winning races, would benefit as his steady hand could keep him out of danger of early elimination and make him a challenger late. It’s getting to the Chase, which will likely require winning a race, that’s become the hurdle.

The expanded field is also good news for the rookies and youngsters on the circuit. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Danica Patrick would have trouble hanging with the veteran pack in points over the course of the marathon schedule under the former system. Now? Getting lightning in a bottle one summer weekend is enough to make the party.

The rookies

Last year’s Rookie of the Year race was the closest NASCAR will ever come to staging Romeo and Juliet, with boyfriend and girlfriend Stenhouse and Patrick going toe-to-toe for the honors, which ultimately went to Stenhouse.

There’s another promising rookie crop this year, with Dillon and Larson the prominent names. They’re both young (Dillon’s 23, Larson’s 21) and they both have high-end rides (Dillon’s driving the decorated No. 3 for Richard Childress, Larson has Juan Pablo Montoya’s old ride in Chip Ganassi’s No. 42), but their paths to stock car racing’s premier level differ.

Dillon’s graduation to Sprint Cup is long-awaited, considering both his family tree (Childress is his grandfather) and his track record. He’s won everywhere he’s been, gathering a Camping World Truck title in 2011 and Nationwide Series championship last year, so it was a matter of when, not if, he reached the big time.

Larson’s tale is less about results and more about potential. It was only two years ago that he raced full-time in K&N Pro Series East, winning that 2012 title, and he was the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year just last season. But the California native turned heads and drew praise from Sprint Cup regulars (even the prickly Tony Stewart called him a “special talent”), so ready or not, his time is now.

The dream team?

Normally, praise about a team’s star power is reserved for the Hendrick machine. But there’s a new four-car team in the sport this year, and with the names Stewart-Haas Racing is trotting out, there doesn’t figure to be any competition for the spotlight.

No team will rival SHR’s combination of Stewart, Patrick and newcomers Harvick and Kurt Busch for storylines to start the year. The potential for dominance is high, as is the possibility for disaster. Stewart and Harvick are proven winners, Busch re-emerged as a power and Patrick has the confidence of her teammates that her talent can match her celebrity.

At the same time, the red flags are everywhere. Harvick is unpredictable, Stewart has no filter, Busch’s disciplinary file comes in volumes and the engines haven’t even started in Daytona and Patrick has already drawn the ire of NASCAR legends Richard Petty.

Now these four will try to make it work together. If it clicks, Hendrick could finally be outgunned and SHR will be the team to beat. If it doesn’t, the wins won’t be there. But there still will be plenty of reason to watch.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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