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.

April 5 in Motorsports History: Alex Zanardi’s amazing Long Beach rally

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Alex Zanardi entered the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 5, 1998 as the race’s defending champion and the series’ defending champion.

But the Italian didn’t seem a serious contender for much of the 105-lap event. Zanardi started 11th position and lost a lap early when he was involved in a multicar spin in the hairpin.

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the 1998 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: Getty Images

But the race was still young, and despite emerging from the incident in 18th place, Zanardi slowly progressed through the field while battling radio problems that made communication difficult with his team.

With five laps remaining, Zanardi passed Dario Franchitti on the backstretch for second place and then focused in on leader Bryan Herta.

With two laps remaining, Zanardi made his move, making a daring pass on the inside of Herta in the Queen’s Hairpin (which no longer exists as the track layout was changed the following year).

The move was reminiscent of Zanardi’s famous last-lap move on the inside of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew in 1996, which deprived Herta of his first CART victory.

Franchitti passed Herta as well, and Zanardi went on to clinch his first victory of the season.

“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said following the race. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”

Following Long Beach, Zanadri won six more times in 1998 en route to his second and final CART championship.

Also on this date:

1992: Bobby Rahal led from start to finish to win the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was the first of four victories for Rahal during his championship season.

2009: Ryan Briscoe won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of three victories for the Aussie in 2009. The race was also the first IndyCar Series on Versus, which was rebranded as NBC Sports Network in 2012.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994