We are 11 races into the 2014 campaign. The next time teams pack their trailers and send cars to a race track other than Charlotte Motor Speedway, a third of this season will be in the books. That is 33.3 percent of a season that has been uniquely drawn up, different from how things have been done in the past in any sport.
The top highlight of the offseason was NASCAR’s changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format. We’ve seen nine different drivers take checkered flags; two of them, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, have won twice each. The emphasis put on winning has created a tension-filled season for those looking for their first victory, and a risk-taking approach to those who have found it.
Once a team gets that win, the emotions seem unparalleled to celebrations of the past. You can hear the sense of relief from team members after a trip to Victory Lane, such as when the crew chief of the #24 Chevrolet, Alan Gustafson, jumped on The Morning Drive with Mike Bagley and Pete Pistone on Monday:
One win can now not only change a paycheck and points, but in some cases can change a season, and even a career.
With a trip to Victory Lane meaning more than ever, the relief in the voices of these teams after their triumphs has been multiplied. This was never more evident than when Jeff Gordon, driver of that #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, joined Claire B. Lang on the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Post-Race Show following his win at Kansas:
Every week of this season has had a playoff feel. Instead of being a one-loss elimination format like some playoffs in sports, NASCAR has become the first ever one-win qualifying regular season sport.
There isn’t another league or association that has put this much pressure on each and every race or game. Even the NCAA basketball tournament has a regular season before teams need to face the “win and advance” style of play.
Every race in NASCAR means more than every game in the regular season of the major sports. With five races remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Challenger Round, one has to wonder what is in store for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender Round beginning at Kentucky.
Could the racing get better? Will historically good but winless teams begin to crack under pressure? How many different winners will we have?
So far, the nine winners of the first 11 races this year have been the usual suspects. We have seen only big names from big teams with big money win. Who will be the first small team to get to Victory Lane?
If the trend continues with the top names in the sport winning and securing Chase berths, some of them winning multiple times, could the new format begin to hear its first criticism?
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been a great points-gatherer during his recent reign. How upset will fans be if he or anyone else finds their way into the Chase without a victory? Or even more so, what if that person wound up winning?
Maybe that’s getting too far ahead. After all, the one thing we have learned this year from NASCAR is that each week is more important than ever.