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

3 Comments
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.

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
James Gilbert/Getty Images
0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”