Skip to main content

NASCAR's Chase is dramatic — but is it working?


The Chase is dramatic — but is it working?

Taylor Swift has one of the hottest tunes on pop radio right with a message for all of her, um, haters. 

'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate

Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake

I shake it off, I shake it off

It’s an anthem of righteousness and belief in one’s self. It’s a keep-going-no-matter-what-they-say type of thing. It’s catchy as hell.

It’s also the perfect theme song for this current version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Now in its fifth week of existence, this elimination-style Chase format has ceded television viewers from this point a year ago and has completely changed the paradigm of how we watch NASCAR’s championship battle. Everything is now about the bottom — who crashes, who struggles and who’s going to get eliminated — while each week’s winner also gets a slight bit of the publicity action.

The focus is on failure. The drama is in who doesn’t succeed, not who is succeeding. And, if we’re talking last week at Kansas, that drama is being unfairly applied to the season’s best drivers because of tire failures seemingly out of their control.

Is that how sports are really supposed to work? Is that a legitimate way to determine a champion? Should winning in the postseason — Joey Logano did Sunday — be treated so callously that it won’t mean a darn thing 15 days later?

I don’t think so. 

But maybe I need to listen to Ms. Swift a little bit more.

Kyle Busch out of spotlight, but quietly in title consideration

Would you want to race against Kyle Busch for the title in a 400-mile, winner-take-all finale? Better yet, would you want to be stuck in a late-race restart duel with Busch in that instance?

That’s a question that might become reality for competing drivers should Busch continue his decent streak of strong finishes into Round 3 of the Chase. And it’s a scenario they may be a bit fearful of.

We’re a long, long way from that point, but Busch has quietly strung together four top-10 finishes in the first four races of the Chase. He’s never done that in a Chase before, and Saturday night he starts on the pole. He’ll aim for his first Cup win at CMS.

Kurt Busch sets fastest 1.5-mile lap speed ever

Thursday night, qualifying for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 was wildly fast. Track record fast.

Kurt Busch set the new fastest stock car speed ever at the venerable speedway with a lap of 198.771 mph — that’s an elapsed time of 27.175 seconds — and also now holds the fastest NASCAR lap on 1.5-mile tracks.

His brother was the one celebrating a pole, however, due to NASCAR’s three-round qualifying format. Kyle clocked in a 197.390 in the final session.

Just where did all of that speed come from? Well, there’s no easy answer. 

The weather in greater Charlotte — Charlotte Motor Speedway is located a bit northeast of the city — can fluctuate pretty rapidly between the traditional May and October races at the track. May can bring the typical welcome-to-summer temperatures and October can bring out the long sleeves.

But Thursday night was mostly mild in the Carolinas and only about 10 degrees cooler than qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 22. That’s a temperature difference not enough to yield the entirety of the gap Kurt put on Jimmie Johnson’s pole-winning lap of 194.911 mph from May.

Some of it had to with innovation that never stops in the Sprint Cup garage and some it probably had to with teams getting a whole lot better at the qualifying format. Engines may be tuned up a bit more thanks to the 100-fewer miles and practice during the day Thursday was probably closer to conditions for qualifying then was the case in May.

Whatever the case, Busch’s number will stand for a while. Massive changes to the 2015 Sprint Cup rules package should drop qualifying speeds by at least 10 mph next year.

Speeds have Goodyear concerned

Friday afternoon, Goodyear provided a bit of an update both on those high speeds and what happened last weekend at Kansas Speedway.

First, the tire company has warned teams that the track record speeds seen this weekend will contribute to higher tire wear and a greater chance of right front tire failure. Teams — already on edge from the failures at Kansas and other tracks this season — were advised to take the information into consideration for race setups and air pressure settings.

Goodyear also confirmed that it is just getting the process underway of studying the tires that came off of Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crashed race cars last week. For some reason, the teams took the tires in question first for examination prior to Goodyear getting to thoroughly examine them at the company’s Akron, Ohio, headquarters.

Even without that investigation complete, Goodyear was still happy to lay preliminary blame at the feet of Keselowski’s team and Earnhardt’s team.

"It’s such a complicated equation, it’s hard to tell,” said Goodyear’s Stu Grant told reporters at the track Friday. “It could be camber, it could be toe, it could be air pressure, it could be spring, it could be shock. There’s a lot of factors. We see an overloaded situation on those two tires. Could it have been a result of a slow leak? Possible. It may not have been anything that the teams did. All that we can do is look at what we have and do an analysis.”

That’s certainly an odd way to frame an investigation that hasn’t even started.

Johnson’s qualifying effort doesn’t help comeback try

Jimmie Johnson’s crash last week at Kansas left him with the deepest hole of any driver to climb from if advancement to Round 3 of the Chase is in his future. It’s a concerning point for the driver, certainly, but one that has a chance of being completely flipped should he mirror his win from the pole at Charlotte in May.

He didn’t start the weekend, well, however.

Johnson was knocked out of qualifying in the second round when he could only muster the 21st-best qualifying speed. It’ll tie his second-worst start at the track in his career.

“It’s disappointing. There’s no way around it,” Johnson said Thursday after explaining his car got tight in Turns 3 and 4 on the qualifying lap, slowing his speed.

It’s not all black clouds for Johnson, though. He won at Charlotte from 37th in 2003.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.