“If you’re not first, you’re last.”
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
It’s about time that NASCAR has finally taken those two quotes about winning to heart.
From basically the beginning of top stock car league in the country, winning wasn’t necessarily at the heart of it all. Sure, it was/is fun to win, but any driver could theoretically win the championship without winning a race (though no one has done it). And a lot of the time, drivers would talk about just having a good points day and not taking risks at the end of the race to pull off a win.
That now is finally gone.
Before the season, NASCAR unveiled its new championship format. It still keeps the Chase, but it altered a) how the field is set for the Chase and b) how the Chase it’s self is won. And even though it has been received with mixed reactions, the Chase is making things much better and much more exciting this season.
One of the big things the new Chase format has done is put an emphasis on winning. NASCAR had tried this the past couple of seasons by lining up the drivers who made the Chase based off of how many wins they had coming into the Chase, but that really wasn’t good enough for a lot of people.
But this new format goes even further. To make the Chase, you essentially have to win a race. The Chase field has gone from 12 to 16 drivers, but spots are first reserved for drivers who have won a race. If there aren’t 16 winners, then the rest of the field will be set by points.
Then once in the Chase, things get even more interesting. Four drivers will be eliminated every three races and the easiest way for a driver to ensure they’re not sent packing is to win. Even the last race puts an emphasis on at least finishing ahead of the other three competitors still in the Chase.
This has already been effective in making for much more exciting races. After winning the Daytona 500, Dale Jr. and his team decided to take a risk and stayed out during a caution to gamble and win a second race. And restarts very late in races have certainly made things very interesting as everyone goes for that automatic spot in the Chase.
This is what NASCAR needed amidst a steady decline over the past couple of years. If things weren’t going so well, or if someone had already clinched a spot in the Chase, they would just lay back and not really worry about winning so much.
But this now puts the pressure on the drivers and teams to get it done. Everyone has to win to get in and once in, everyone has to win to advance. That, in turn, should make races, especially the last five races or so before the Chase just incredible and insane as drivers on the outside looking in scramble to take the checkered flag and a spot in the Chase.
And like Vince Lombardi said, winning is now the only thing that matters.