Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 2 – The new Chase format

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source: Getty Images
NASCAR’s overhaul of the Chase led to a more spirited battle for stock car racing’s biggest prize. Photo: Getty Images.

MotorSportsTalk is counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 2 – NASCAR’s controversial but ultimately successful overhaul of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format…

As Kevin Harvick celebrated his first Sprint Cup Series title following an electric championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, you couldn’t help but think that it had all worked out again for NASCAR.

Going into the Ford Ecoboost 400 season finale, only one thing could have possibly ruined the first year of its new Chase for the Sprint Cup format: Ryan Newman somehow beating Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano to the stripe and claiming the title on consistency – and without a race win.

To be fair, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said that he would have been fine with that. But let’s face it: The format was designed to place a bigger emphasis on winning. Regular season victories earned drivers a spot in the post-season, and post-season wins got them into the next Chase round.

Newman claiming the Cup without a race win would have gone down as an incredible upset. It also would have likely raised questions about the true value of the format.

But as the Homestead race progressed, it became clear that a race win would be what was necessary to earn stock car racing’s greatest prize. In the end, it went to Harvick, who was among the fastest drivers at almost every stop on the circuit.

And thus, NASCAR’s gamble paid off handsomely.

Oh sure, another Newman-esque season from either him or somebody else in 2015 can bring us right back to where we were. But since the ‘winless champion’ prospect was avoided in the first year of the format, you wonder if NASCAR fans are now more inclined to let the new Chase settle in and see where it leads to.

Had Newman emerged triumphant in South Florida, they may not have been as willing to do that.

But Harvick drove away with the trophy, and so, the memories we’ll have of this 2014 Chase will consist primarily of how the new format’s ability to ratchet up the pressure brought out both the best and worst in the title contenders.

Compelled to go all out on every lap instead of settling for the much-mocked “good points day,” drivers took more risks in order to keep their Cup dreams alive.

“Win or bust” scenarios in the elimination races gave a heroic quality to Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega and Harvick’s win at Phoenix, which put him in the Championship 4. Let’s also not forget Newman’s own last-lap shove of Kyle Larson at Phoenix that earned him the 11th-place spot he needed to join Harvick in the final battle.

But while the passion, intensity, and drama was mostly exciting to behold, there were some times where it all boiled over.

Never mind the added attention brought by the post-race fights at Charlotte (which saw the quiet Matt Kenseth attack Brad Keselowski from behind) and Texas (which saw Jeff Gordon go after Keselowski after their late-race contact caused a costly tire failure for Gordon).

They didn’t give NASCAR a great look, and something needs to be done to help curb those incidents before an innocent bystander gets severely injured – and makes such situations even more embarrassing for the sport to deal with.

But, fight nights aside, the new Chase still has to be considered a success. It delivered the exciting product that France and Co. need to have in order to draw more fans to the sport.

With NASCAR starting its new 10-year TV deal with NBC Sports and FOX next season, that’s their most important mission. Time will tell if they succeed, but this was a pretty good start.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”