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

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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.

Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”