NASCAR’s new Chase has delivered, even with surprise final four


Waking up this Monday morning after the final race of the Eliminator Round in NASCAR’s newly engineered 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s hard to say the format hasn’t set out to do what it meant to accomplish.

The drama has been ratcheted up. The intensity has been off the hook. None of the remaining eight drivers were safe Sunday at Phoenix in the quest to get to the final four at Homestead.

But the best part about this new Chase, bar none, is the guaranteed element of surprise, something frequently lacking in recent Chase runs.

Depending on your favorite driver, that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s certainly something you have to account for.

You have almost zero idea of what is going to happen going in, and in reflecting on the Chase so far, there’s almost no way to have projected who the final four would have been for Homestead.

If you look at NASCAR in its current era, you have to compare it to past Chases, and not the pre-Chase run of seasons through 2003, where the traditional points format just saw a season-long accumulation of results.

So in looking through the Chase in past years, the years that stand out are the ones where you had no idea what was possible or what was coming heading into the Homestead season finale.

2004, the inaugural Chase finale, stood out for all the right reasons – it was the first Chase finale, it had the potential of a first-time champion in either Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin, or Jeff Gordon going for his still elusive fifth championship.

2006 saw Johnson finally stand on the verge of his first championship. Once he delivered, it was a case of “when” not “if” Johnson would win that title, and that year, of course, kicked off Johnson’s record run of five titles in a row.

Not to say the Chase was a foregone conclusion, but once it became apparent Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team consistently hit their stride in the Chase and got out to enough of a lead where their title wasn’t in question, the run to Homestead became more a coronation than a competition. The “Johnson only needs to finish 25th (or worse)” storyline was not compelling theater when it comes to engaging viewers for the final race of the year.

The surprise would have only been if his foes overtook him, and whether it was Gordon, Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and on down the line, it never happened.

Why was 2011 so memorable? Again, surprise. Tony Stewart was winless in the regular season… and having only squeaked into the Chase on points, he then went on an incredible tear of 5 wins in the 10 Chase races to score the title. That was a surprise, as was Carl Edwards having a shot, and then losing on of all things, a win tiebreaker.

2012? Brad Keselowski? Beating Jimmie Johnson at his own game? Done and done… and Keselowski’s title in a year where he was the underdog, where Dodge was leaving the sport, where the all-conquering Team Penske had still never won a Sprint Cup championship, was indeed something you probably didn’t see coming. The only thing predictable after the title was Keselowski’s legendary beer chug on SportsCenter later that evening.

Order was restored in the galaxy with Johnson beating Kenseth a year ago in the “battle of niceties,” but that was enough to shake it up big time for 2014.

So, NASCAR has got exactly what it asked for in 2014 with the new Chase, in terms of surprise.

Surprise is Brad Keselowski splitting the gap at Chicagoland with the “did you see that?” move of the Chase, going for the win and locking himself in to the Contender round after taking the opening Challenger round.

Surprise is Johnson, the Dover dominator, coming up short of a win there while teammate Gordon bagged the victory. The first sign there was a chink in the 48 team’s Chase armor in 2014.

Surprise is the drama that blew up at Charlotte, when Kenseth – the usually mild-mannered Wisconsinite – goes off on Keselowski in the garage area like his Green Bay Packers did on the Chicago Bears last night.

Surprise is when Keselowski, needing a win to advance through to the Eliminator round, pulls it off at Talladega. Surprise is the fact Kenseth was the one helping push him. And surprise is when Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne all get bounced in the same race.

Surprise is when Dale Jr. wins Martinsville for the first time in his career, it means basically nothing points-wise since his best shot at a title is axed, and it inadvertently screws up Gordon’s title hopes – a win that now, has meant he doesn’t get to advance in the Chase.

Surprise is when Keselowski makes the same “go for it” move at Texas, even if the gap was tight, he contacts Gordon, and there’s a second blow-up post-race involving the driver of the Miller Lite white deuce.

Surprise is when Harvick wins Phoenix… OK that one’s not a surprise at all.

But Gordon, Kenseth, and Keselowski finish second, third and fourth and don’t advance, while Hamlin and Ryan Newman make it to the Chase finale after having one combined win all season? And Newman does it after a last-lap tap of rookie Kyle Larson?

Surprise is not knowing who of Harvick, Hamlin, Newman and Joey Logano will become a first-time Sprint Cup champion next Sunday.

Surprise is the fact Keselowski (twice), Gordon (once), and Earnhardt Jr. (once) have won races in this Chase, and none is eligible for the title next week.

Surprise is the reaction when drivers who have a shot at the title have 10 combined wins this year, and the 12 drivers eliminated in the Chase have the other 25.

Surprise would be the reaction if a winless Newman wins the championship, thus rendering the “winning is everything” marketing line incorrect.

Surprise is exactly the word to describe the first year of NASCAR’s new Chase… which is perhaps not a surprise at all. And perhaps exactly what was intended.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”