NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: A New Season & A New Playoff Format

Doesn’t it seem like the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season just ended? It was only November that Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Cup down in Miami, but here we are, back in Florida, for the Daytona 500 and the beginning of a new season on Sunday. The offseason might have been short, but it was consequential. Let’s review the big changes and take a look at what lies ahead in 2014.

A change to the postseason format is the big news. The previous format saw the period from the Daytona to mid-September devoted to narrowing the field to twelve drivers (at least 12 who would be eligible for the championship, each individual race was still a full field). Those 12 drivers essentially began anew and started to accumulate points, with the winner being crowned champ.

The season’s final races, starting mid-September in Chicagoland and concluding just prior to Thanksgiving in Miami are what is referred to as “The Chase For The Cup.” The purpose in establishing the Chase had been to give NASCAR a postseason that would feel like that which exists in other sports. The new changes have moved the circuit even further in that direction.

Sixteen drivers will now qualify for the Chase by the time we get to Chicagoland on September 14. But while qualification will be easier, elimination will happen quicker. After three Chase races, four drivers will be eliminated. The same happens after the sixth race. We proceed to ultimately narrow it down to the last four drivers and then the championship will be settled by whichever of the four finishes highest on November 16 in Miami.

The drama for the final race will be heightened dramatically. Last year, we knew that Johnson would have to get in a wreck for him to win the title. NASCAR has taken the same path as college football, essentially creating a “Final Four”, as each sport follows the lead of college hoops.

Any time there’s a change on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit, it’s time for TheSportsNotebook to call in its racing consultant, my brother Bill. A purist, Bill is skeptical of the changes. “The playoff system (as it was) was fine,” he said. “It gave drivers over ten races to catch up if they had one or two bad races. Now (with the frequent eliminations) if you have one bad race, you pretty much need an outright win to survive.”

Supporters of the new system might point out that this is similar to the dynamic which exists in other sports. After all, they might say, Peyton Manning had one big game against the Seattle Seahawks and didn’t get a chance to catch up. The St. Louis Cardinals’ bats went quiet for a week, nothing in the course of a baseball season, and lost to the Boston Red Sox. According to this line of thinking, NASCAR is doing different than what we celebrate in other sports.

But NASCAR has a different dynamic and it’s the no-fault wreck. “Sometimes accidents are not of the driver’s own making”, Bill said. “Sometimes it’s even the leader that gets taken out in a wreck not of his own making. That’s all true and it’s difficult to think of how other sports have something analogous to wreck that completely takes you out of a race, and is not necessarily your own fault.

That’s what gives me mixed feelings about the change—I like the drama of the four drivers going head-to-head in Miami, but I get where the NASCAR purists are coming from.

NASCAR didn’t stop at changing the playoff format, they also changed the way drivers qualify for races on a week-to-week basis. Previously, the time trials that set up the post positions were done individually. Now drivers will race in groups. Bill is willing to withhold judgment in this regard and see how it works. For me, it’s hard to see how anything good comes out of it—you’re running the risk of wrecks and there’s no gain that really justifies it. It’s the equivalent of NFL teams playing a non-binding full-contact scrimmage just prior to playing for real.

As we look ahead to the next ten months of racing, Johnson is a solid favorite to win a seventh Cup, with betting odds of 5-2. Kyle Busch comes in at 7-1. Other notable drivers would be…

*The Comeback Kids—Tony Stewart (championships in 2002, 2005, 2011) and Denny Hamlin each suffered injuries that took them out of postseason contention, Hamlin at the beginning of the year, Stewart at the end. Hamlin is 10-1 to win, while the more proven Stewart is surprisingly lower at 18-1.

*The Legend—Jeff Gordon still gets respect in the betting lines, even though the four-time champ hasn’t won it all since 2001. Gordon is 14-1.

*My Favorite—Matt Kenseth used to drive for Roush Fenway Racing (owned by the people who own the Red Sox, my favorite baseball team), now drives for Joe Gibbs Racing (the Redskins are my favorite football team) and is from Madison, WI (near where I’m from and Wisconsin is my favorite college program). This guy is basically me. Well, other than the fact he can handle a car better at 120 mph than I can at 40 mph. Kenseth, who won a championship in 2003, is a 15-2 shot.

*The Darkhorse—I asked Bill to give me a good and up-and-comer, available at good betting odds, who might win the Cup. Last year he gave Kevin Harvick, and Harvick contended all the way to the last couple races.

This year, Bill tells us to watch Joey Logano at 20-1. Logano made the postseason for the first time last year, and his star is on the rise. At 20-1 odds, that’s enough room to hedge and also wager on Johnson at 5-2 as a break-even fallback—the same betting advice given last year with JJ and Harvick. 

Read more about the Daytona 500 betting odds