The irony of a winless driver winning a title in the new Chase still exists


My colleague Chris Estrada touched on the races of Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman yesterday, as they both are among the final eight drivers who have advanced to the Eliminator round.

Of course, there’s the other factor in play that still exists with both of them: they have as many Sprint Cup wins this year as I do, writing this piece, and as you do, reading this piece: zero.

It is both ironic and almost a touch hilarious that it’s these two drivers – Kenseth and Newman – in this situation in the year a supposedly greater emphasis was placed on winning, and considering these two helped drive the impetus for a change to the points structure and the introduction of a Chase in the first place, ahead of the 2004 season.

But 2003 seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Yet more than a decade ago while NASCAR, then in its final year as Winston Cup before it became NEXTEL Cup (forerunner to Sprint Cup), had perhaps its best ever on-track finish for the win when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch at Darlington, it also had a champion who had all of one win in total: Kenseth.

That was the year Newman, then in his second full year in the series, stormed through the field like a tornado through the central U.S. He scored 11 poles and eight wins driving for Team Penske – easily the class of the field in both categories – yet his inconsistency on race day resigned him to a forgettable sixth place in points.

Yes, Newman had the eight wins, but they were balanced out by seven finishes of 37th or worse. That included his infamous barrel roll in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500 and a run of 39th, 38th, 42nd and 39th from Talladega in April through to Richmond in May.

Kenseth has long harbored consistency as his trademark and he’s using it again to his advantage this year. It’s not that he can’t win races – witness the fact a year ago Kenseth was in Newman’s shoes, winning a season (and career) high seven races and yet falling short of the title – but this year for either lack of luck or occasional lack of speed he’s been unable to get the job done.

Heck, Kenseth’s biggest news making moment this year came a week ago at Charlotte, when he went after Brad Keselowski in the garage post-race.

Meanwhile it’s hard to pinpoint what Newman’s biggest news making moment has been this year.

But 11 years later, Newman is a far more consistent driver than he was in the boom-or-bust period of that 2003 season. He’s been a steady, solid rock at the helm of Richard Childress Racing this season in his first year there, and has flown under the radar to get to this point.

So how would NASCAR react if one or both of Kenseth and Newman continue their consistent, nondescript, methodical run of results, fail to win, and advance through to Homestead, battle for the championship, and eventually have it come down to say, who finishes sixth or seventh to win the title?

It’s a question I’m guessing they don’t want to answer. But it would break open the debate about the value and true impact of this new format if either winless driver, again if they stay winless, was to emerge as champion over a six-win Brad Keselowski or a five-win Joey Logano, for instance.

Although, if it was Kenseth beating a Penske driver with the most wins, we’d have history repeat itself… just under a format designed primarily to prevent that from happening.

This all goes for naught if Newman or Kenseth wins between now and then. For the sake of the “winning means everything” mantra that has been trumpeted this year though, it’s not in NASCAR’s best interest to have either winless driver take home the biggest prize of all at the end of the season.