Commentary

Sixteen-driver Chase? Strap in, folks

Updated: January 27, 2014, 2:38 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

Maybe it was another trial balloon floated by NASCAR, hoping to glean the mass reaction to some of the more revolutionary concepts. Maybe the proposed new Chase for the Sprint Cup system first reported by the Charlotte Observer is more of a finished product than a hand-wringing collection of fans and media hope. We'll find out in a week.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte will give it one final shot together in 2014.

For now, here are 16 impact points for the reported snazzy, new 16-driver mega-Chase:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver last season produced his best finish since 2006 -- fifth – with a blistering Chase performance and was making a vapor trail toward 2014. Then came an announcement that crew chief Steve Letarte would leave after this season to become an NBC race analyst. But the pair pledged to make their final year together matter. That seems more likely to happen now, even given Earnhardt's troublesome lack of year-to-year consistency. With an average final points finish of 12.7 in the Chase era, he figures to pierce a 16-driver field even if he has only two wins since 2008.

2. Marcos Ambrose -- The 37-year-old Australian may be in the best position to exploit the reported new Chase system. And the timing is ideal for a driver at a career crossroads, having never finished higher than 18th in points in six Sprint Cup seasons. A former V8 Supercars champion, he is a two-time winner at NASCAR's highest level, both at Watkins Glen, and now represents Richard Petty Motorsports' best chance to make the NASCAR playoffs for the first time since 2009 because, according to the Observer report, one win would virtually guarantee a Chase berth. Ambrose has long tried to be more than just a road course specialist, but he's a very valuable one now.

[+] EnlargeAustin Dillon
Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesImagine the hoopla if Austin Dillon were to get the iconic No. 3 car into Victory Lane his rookie season.

3. Snark -- There will be pique and puns, from niche media and mainstream punditry decrying or mocking NASCAR's latest grab for broader relevance. National columnists will ponder which drivers will receive NIT berths after the NASCAR Sweet 16 is set. Beat columnists will drill down on the travesty of it all. There will be something for everyone to love to hate.

4. The rookie class -- Specifically Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Expecting a rookie to finish 16th or better in points is unrealistic. Surmising that either the 21-year-old Larson or the 23-year-old former Truck and Nationwide series champion could manage a victory in the first 26 races is not outlandish. Larson, taking over for Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chevrolet for Ganassi Racing, finished eighth in his first Nationwide season last year and came within .023 of a second of beating Kyle Busch at Bristol. Dillon led preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway, where he has three top-5s in four career Nationwide races. A No. 3 Chevrolet returning to the series after a 13-year absence and qualifying for the Chase would be extremely well-received. As would the driver who helped push Dillon to a win at Talladega or Daytona.

5. The NHRA -- Drag racing will be awash in free advertising as the NHRA's eliminations system is constantly referenced during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, in which four drivers would, according to the Observer report, be cast off after the third, sixth and ninth races. Oh, the cross-promotional opportunities. Cue John Force for a video primer on the similarities and differences of the two systems.

6. Steve Letarte -- Earnhardt.'s crew chief not only has more margin for error in guiding his driver back to the Chase, he gains a year of experience with the new points system before taking his expertise to the broadcast booth.

7. The last five races before the Chase -- Who wouldn't want to promote the Cup events at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond? Volatility of the points standings will be a selling point, as drivers scramble for wins and seemingly automatic Chase berths, which means a boon for …

8. Sheet metal vendors -- Chase mania will escalate among winless drivers outside of the top 16 in points in the waning weeks of the regular season. Increasingly desperate, they will take chances and they will destroy cars by the wad. And some cordial relationships, too.

9. Sponsors -- More drivers contesting the championship. More drivers' sponsors accruing television time. Guys in firesuits and Yves Saint Laurent suits smile.

10. Kasey Kahne -- The commencement of his Sprint Cup career coincided with the advent of the Chase, and in the ensuing decade he has an average points finish of 13.7 and qualified for the playoffs four times, twice consecutively. A 16-time winner, he has claimed victories in seven different seasons -- which makes him, statistically, a prime beneficiary of the new proposal.

11. NBC -- The network will have a full season to assess the success or failure of the new points system and offer critiques before beginning a 10-year contract in which it will broadcast the final 20 races of the season.

12. Radio shows -- Just open up those phone lines. This will take care of itself.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsHow would a 16-driver Chase impact Jimmie Johnson's quest for a seventh Sprint Cup championship? Likely very little.

13. Jimmie Johnson -- Winning a seventh championship under a new Chase format will only burnish his reputation. And if he keeps performing in the Chase -- winning 24.49 percent of the time -- whoever else gets eliminated and when won't matter much.

14. Furniture Row Racing -- The little team that could won at Darlington with Regan Smith in 2011 and went to the Chase with Kurt Busch last season. If Martin Truex Jr. can win again this season -- he claimed his second Cup win last season -- Furniture Row makes the playoffs again.

15. Team orders conspiracies -- NASCAR punished Michael Waltrip Racing into submission last season for contriving to manipulate the finish at Richmond, but an expanded playoffs with an emphasis on victory will open the possibility -- perceived or real -- for mass chicanery. NASCAR's rules requiring drivers to attempt "100 percent" to advance their positions should prevent a Formula One-style pullover, but certainly NASCAR teams could figure out something to help a teammate into the Chase.

16. Jamie McMurray -- The 12-year veteran has an average 18th-place points finish and six wins in the Chase era, putting him on the periphery of the new postseason boundary. And the statistical deck has cleared in front of a driver 19th best in average finish the past 10 years. The incredibly timely retirements of Jeff Burton and Mark Martin have eliminated the 16th- and 17th-best finishers since 2004. Burton, who left Richard Childress Racing to prepare for a 2015 launch as an NBC analyst, averaged a points finish of 14.5 since 2004. Martin, who is working as a test driver/adviser at Stewart-Haas Racing, averaged a 14.7 finish.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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