HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — After a wild playoff round filled with brawls and go-for-the-throat racing that left NASCAR’s biggest stars out of title contention, chairman Brian France said Friday the series would “be delighted” if winless Ryan Newman defied the odds and claims the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
France announced the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in January and promised it would place a greater importance on winning. It worked during the regular season, when a victory earned a driver an automatic berth in the 16-driver Chase field.
It’s also been a critical part of the three elimination rounds, as both Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski pulled off must-win victories to avoid elimination. Harvick’s victory last week in Phoenix put him into Sunday’s championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But Newman has debunked the theory that winning is the most important element by making NASCAR’s final four without a win. His most recent victory was last year’s Brickyard 400, and he enters the championship round on a 51-race losing streak.
Newman made it into the finale with consistent, unspectacular finishes for Richard Childress Racing. He’s led just 41 laps all season with just four top-five finishes. Two of those did come during the second and third segments of the Chase.
“What we’re all finding out is the strategies that are associated with competing in this new format are different, and they’re unknown and untested,” France said Friday. “Phoenix was a great example of that, where one person in Harvick won the race. But another in Ryan Newman got there in more of a consistent model, but got there nonetheless. We’ll be delighted if Ryan Newman and Richard Childress are able to pull it off. I think he’s the underdog at this point, but they kind of like that, so we’ll see how it plays.”
Newman will race for the title against Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, a trio that has combined for 10 victories this season. The first of the four drivers to cross the finish line wins the championship, but France feels confident the champion will also win the race.
He often references the 2011 finale when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards waged a lap-by-lap battle for 400 miles for the championship. Stewart won the race, finished tied in the standings with Edwards and won the title on the tie-breaker. That epic race was one of many instances that illustrate how championship contenders seem to hit a higher gear over the final month of the season.
“What we’ve seen, if you go through past years, is how those teams will be elevating their game against everybody else,” France said.
With four drivers now in the championship field, France believes the finale to be remembered for a very long time.
“I think depending on what happens on Sunday, it has a chance to be one of the most successful seasons in NASCAR history,” he said.
His enthusiasm for the Chase is understandable. France introduced the format in 2004 and it has undergone several tweaks over the year before this season’s radical overhaul. He said there would “very modest to zero” tweaks to the Chase during the offseason.
That’s an unpopular decision for the fans of Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski, who were both eliminated last week. Gordon had four wins this season and was outstanding in the third segment of the Chase, but a flat tire from contact with Keselowski at Texas led to a championship-ending 29th-place finish.
Keselowski had a series-best six wins this season and won in the first and second segments to advance. Many believe the system is flawed because the best teams did not make it to the finale, a theory Keselowski debunked Friday.
“Fyi- I’m not upset,” he tweeted. “It was possible in any & every #NASCAR championship format to win the title with no wins and lose title with the most.”
Keselowski did upset several of his peers with his aggressive driving, and the confrontations led to fights after two different Chase races. Matt Kenseth grabbed him from behind after the Charlotte race, and a confrontation with Gordon at Texas led to a brawl that left both drivers bloodied. NASCAR suspended four Hendrick Motorsports crew members for the fight.
France acknowledged NASCAR is walking a fine line when the intensity spills off of the track. He wants drivers to show emotion, but conceded it was an unwelcome spotlight when the fighting received wide attention that had casual sports fans talking about NASCAR.
“If it goes too far, I don’t think it’s good for NASCAR, no matter how much publicity you get because you do erode your credibility no matter how much attention you get,” he said. “We have to make sure it doesn’t get to a place where it injures people.”
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