NASCAR & Auto Racing

Twisting Watkins Glen could lead straight to NASCAR Chase

AJ Allmendinger (47), who rode a victory at Watkins Glen a year ago to a spot in the NASCAR Chase, won the pole at the track on Saturday, giving him a straight shot at another berth on the twisting road course.
AJ Allmendinger (47), who rode a victory at Watkins Glen a year ago to a spot in the NASCAR Chase, won the pole at the track on Saturday, giving him a straight shot at another berth on the twisting road course. AP

Kyle Busch, winner of five of the past seven Sprint Cup Series races, was asked Friday if drivers should qualify for the Chase on a single victory.

Busch was emphatic in his reply.

“I think winning in this sport is very, very tough and you see that every single year,” Busch said. “I think the average is only between 12 and 14 winners in a season and it’s been that way for 15 or 20 years.”

Busch represents a view that was widely held among NASCAR drivers before the Chase scoring system: That winning a race didn’t count for enough in the grand scheme. The old system was about consistency, where an abundance of top-10 finishes could trump winning a race or two.

The Chase rewards that single victory, even if it comes from an unexpected driver in one of the circuit’s two road-course races, or at the superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega, where winners can be unpredictable.

“Sometimes you look at teams – maybe last year you look at Aric Almirola or AJ Allmendinger – they won races to get themselves into the Chase, but were their teams really ready for the Chase?” Busch asked. “That’s not for any of us to decide. It’s for them to have to be able to compete ... for a championship.”

Almirola’s win to get in came at Daytona. Allmendinger’s? At Watkins Glen, the road course where NASCAR’s Cheez-It 355 is scheduled for Sunday.

They wouldn’t have been locks under the old system, when it was conceivable (though unlikely) a driver could score enough top-10 finishes to make the Chase, and win the championship, without ever winning a race.

NASCAR restructured the rules 12 seasons ago to reset the points with 10 races to go, setting up a 10-race showdown among Chase qualifiers. They tweaked those rules again before the 2014 season so that if a driver won a race they would almost certainly be in the Chase.

That meant a driver such as Allmendinger, with a smaller team such as JTG-Daughtry Racing, could win a road race and end up in the post-season along with teams from NASCAR giants such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing teams and Team Penske.

Ready or not.

Pluses and minuses

Jeff Gordon, nearing the end of a 24-year driving career, has seen a lot of stock-car racing. He has won four championships in what’s now called Sprint Cup, plus 92 races and 80 poles. He spent enough time under both scoring systems to compare and contrast.

And he sees good and bad in each.

He values the consistency and versatility that was demanded of drivers in the ’90s. Those rules forced him to learn nuances to driving road courses (Watkins Glen and Sonoma) and Superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega)

But the more recent system the championship won’t be decided until the season-ending race at Homestead, Fla. Too often under the old system the championship was decided a month, or even two months, before the finale.

“Early on I just remembered wanting to take on every challenge as a team that we possible could to improve to be a bigger threat for the championship,” Gordon said. “I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t grow up road-racing a lot.”

Now, if you win a race on the typical, 1 1/2-mile track NASCAR employs, you don’t have to worry about results at road courses or Superspeedways – what Gordon calls the “wild-card tracks.”

“Once you get a win or two under your belt, you start thinking about what you have to do in those 10 (season-ending Chase) races,” Gordon said. “You can give up a lot of things. You can go-for-broke and go all-out and try new things and get super-aggressive.”

Gordon doesn’t see that as a bad thing: He noted that when the old system was in place “it got boring toward the end of the year a lot of years.”

That’s not an exaggeration.

A different drama

Numbers illustrate Gordon’s perception. In the last 10 years of the former system, the driver leading the points race with 10 races to go won the title eight times.

In the 11 seasons under the Chase system, the driver with the lead with 10 races to go has won it twice (Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in 2007).

Gordon is right that the old system demanded drivers be good at all varieties of Sprint Cup tracks. He’s just as correct that NASCAR had a problem when its championship became a coronation.

Now it’s win to get in, and peak at the right time.

But to get in with one victory and have a chance to run for a championship? Even on a wild-card track such as Watkins Glen?

Allmendinger could do that again Sunday. He won the pole for the Cheez-it 355 on Saturday, with a lap of 68.993 seconds (127.839 mph).

“I’ve always loved road courses. I feel like drivers can make more of a difference here,” Allmendinger said. “Last year winning the race gave us great confidence. It’s the same car as last year, but we worked all winter to make it lighter.”

The pole is Allmendinger’s second of the season. The other was at Sonoma, Calif., the other road course on the Sprint Cup schedule.

He finished 37th.

Era of uncertainty

One thing the Chase Era of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing has done is throw open the title chances to a much wider field. In the final 10 years of the old format, the driver leading the points with 10 races to go won the title eight times.

Chase era

Season

Points leader 10 races to go

Eventual champion

2014

Brad Keselowski

Kevin Harvick

2013

Matt Kenseth

Jimmie Johnson

2012

Denny Hamlin

Brad Keselowski

2011

Kyle Busch

Tony Stewart

2010

Denny Hamlin

Jimmie Johnson

2009

Mark Martin

Jimmie Johnson

2008

Kyle Busch

Jimmie Johnson

2007

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

2006

Matt Kenseth

Jimmie Johnson

2005

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

2004

Jeff Gordon

Kurt Busch

Previous points system

Season

Points leader 10 races to go

Eventual champion

2003

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

2002

Sterling Marlin

Tony Stewart

2001

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

2000

Bobby Labonte

Bobby Labonte

1999

Dale Jarrett

Dale Jarrett

1998

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

1997

Mark Martin

Jeff Gordon

1996

Terry Labonte

Terry Labonte

1995

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

1994

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt

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