By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason – It all used to come down to Richmond International Raceway.
The last race to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup typically turned into one of the most exciting of the season as drivers made desperate final attempts to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Heading into the event, an ongoing points battle had consumed storylines for weeks. Drivers kept exchanging the final spots in the 10, 12 or in 2013 – 13-competitor field back and forth until it was all settled under the lights in Richmond, Virginia.
However, the new Chase format changed this. The crucial final regular season races seemed to have lost the level of significance they once held, producing less exciting racing.
While the bubble is still monitored, only a drastic turn of events will change the names competing for the title this late in the game. This possibility will be present during the event. However, it will not be watched closely as only a surprise contender up front could alter the playoff picture.
The 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400 became one of the most controversial races in the sport’s history due to the importance of points. As the race neared its finish, Michael Waltrip Racing personnel made the call to alter the event as Clint Bowyer spun and Brian Vickers pitted. This allowed former team driver Martin Truex Jr. to gain additional positions and points to secure a Chase spot.
During the race, points were so tight it left teams to take drastic measures in order to secure a spot among those competing for the title. Relying so heavily on points is something the new system steps away from, emphasizing wins.
This mindset changed drastically when NASCAR implemented the new playoff format. While points still matter, they don’t mean as much. On Saturday night, there will likely not be any team orders to give someone a shot at the championship. Unless it’s for the win, the conclusion to the “race to the Chase” will be rather uneventful.
The race could become more dramatic if someone needing a win competes up front. However, this would come as a surprise because those searching for a victory have not been consistent front-runners this season. While it’s possible, the odds are not in their favor.
Despite the race not likely living up to the excitement level of years past, the thrills will be abundant in the final ten weeks of the season.
Every Chase race has added meaning and incentive for drivers to perform well under the system that made its debut last season. This comes as a result of eliminations as each round requires consistency, without wins, to challenge for the Sprint Cup.
This trade-off seems worth it. The final ten events were more exciting than ever in 2014. This is something NASCAR has been searching for and have now created. While Richmond won’t be the most interesting race of the year, it will lead to an unforgettable stretch of races that culminates with the electrifying finale.
Fans would love to see a classic short track race on Saturday night. However, considering what’s at stake, the odds are low as drivers will look for a momentous performance to carry them into the playoffs.
Patience is key for those watching as sooner than later, the sport will embark on another epic run to Miami.
Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton