Playoffs are the new black
Are NASCAR's latest changes just an attempt to stifle Jimmie Johnson?
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!
FOR 29 YEARS -- from Richard Petty and Gerald Ford through Jeff Gordon and Dubya -- the points system NASCAR used to determine its Cup series champion remained untouched. But since 2004, when the sanctioning body rolled out its revolutionary 10-race Chase for the Cup postseason format, its rulebook has been seemingly stuck in a cycle of constant rewrites. And the 2014 season brings the biggest overhaul yet, causing competitors to wonder whether the changes are necessary evolution or a desperate swing for the fences by a nervous sanctioning body tired of seeing six-time champ Jimmie Johnson dominate the sport.
This year's Chase will expand the postseason field from 12 to 16 cars -- with 15 berths earned via race wins instead of points accumulated -- which then will get whittled down through a staggered 10-week elimination ladder, culminating in a four-driver, winner-take-all season finale title fight. When asked to address accusations of "Jimmie-proofing" after Johnson's 2013 title, a NASCAR exec produced a 4-year-old fan survey that favors the new 2014 model of Chase eliminations and putting more emphasis on winning. Though NASCAR wasn't ready to pull the trigger just yet, it's not as if the organization has been quiet. While waiting to implement the playoff, the sanctioning body overhauled the points scale in 2011 and rolled out totally redesigned "Generation Six" race cars last season. It's also planned sweeping changes to pole qualifying this season, replacing decades of one-lap speeds with "European-style" cutthroat group sessions.
For his part, JJ chooses to brush aside cynicism. "I don't think NASCAR is picking on me or trying to keep me from winning the championship," Johnson says. "In conversations I've had with [NASCAR chairman] Brian [France] and NASCAR executives, they like history, they like those big monumental moments."
Still, not everyone is as enthusiastic or positive. The lack of details surrounding the Chase and qualifying procedures has had crew chiefs wringing their hands all winter. And in the garage, the greatest stress seems to stem from the bigger picture of an admittedly struggling sport, which leads to a deceptively simple question: How much change is too much change?
"In the end, the goal for me behind the wheel is the same," says driver/owner Tony Stewart, whose three Cup titles came via three different postseason formats, including perhaps the greatest title bout in NASCAR history -- winning a 2011 tiebreaker over Carl Edwards. (Johnson had crashed out of contention five weeks earlier.) "I'm going to try to win every race and let the rest sort itself out. You just have to have faith that the people making these decisions are doing it for the right reasons."
France has never been shy about spelling out those reasons. He wants to lure casual fans through "Game 7 moments" and wants to compete with stick-and-ball sports, particularly football, which annually sucks away the autumn spotlight. Whether heroic or quixotic, he has chosen his weapon with this new Chase. "There's one thing I know for sure," Gordon adds. "If this doesn't work, they'll have no problem scrapping it and trying something new."
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