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

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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.