HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There was pushing, punching, one ambush in a darkened garage and a bloody brawl. There were thousands of hours spent analyzing the path to the Sprint Cup title as teams tried to adapt to NASCAR’s new championship format.
For all the hand-wringing, all the skepticism from loyal fans, all the curiosity about this new Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR may have actually gotten it right.
There will be a first-time champion Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the 10-race Chase concludes with a curious final field. Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman will race for the title, and the highest-finishing driver will be crowned champion.
“I think depending on what happens on Sunday, it has a chance to be one of the most successful seasons in NASCAR history,” said chairman Brian France.
It’s so hyped that even Michael Jordan is expected to be on hand to support Hamlin, a Charlotte Hornets season-ticket holder.
NASCAR is absolutely giddy over this new championship system, even though it’s unlikely many people picked this final four in the new, bracket-style Chase. France and his top executives remodeled the entire playoff to put an emphasis on winning and a need to perform at the highest level and take calculated risks when everything is on the line.
The result was a 16-driver field — a win in the regular season earned you a spot in the Chase — that raced over a trio of three-race segments. Four drivers were knocked from the field each segment, and a win in any round earned an automatic berth in the next one.
Twice in the Chase, a driver was backed into a must-win situation to save his season and delivered: Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega in the second round, and Harvick’s victory last week at Phoenix that pushed him into the finale.
The format has its detractors, though, and many of them are Jeff Gordon fans. He had his best season in years and was nearly perfect in the third round, but Gordon was knocked out of contention last week. He can point to his poor finish at Texas, where he was racing for the win when an aggressive move by Keselowski led to contact, a flat tire, a spin and a 29th-place finish.
It was Gordon who angrily confronted Keselowski after the race, leading to a bloody brawl between the drivers and their crews. It was the second post-race skirmish in a month for Keselowski.
But Keselowski and Gordon, who combined to win 10 races this season, are both out of title contention. Instead, Hamlin with one win and Newman, who is winless, worked the system to make the finale.
Newman, who will be trying to give car owner Richard Childress his first championship in 20 years, makes no apologies for the way he got to the final.
“We’ve gone into every race with the intention of winning it and leading the most laps and winning the pole,” Newman said. “We just haven’t been as successful as some of these other guys. But our consistency has been there.”
That doesn’t sit well with fans who question how France could talk about an emphasis on winning, yet a winless driver is still standing while Gordon, Keselowski, Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson have been relegated to spectators.
“I think that wanting to win events has taken on an undeniable importance,” France said. “At the same time, there ought to be room for teams that do it every week and can be consistent.”
Newman is the underdog in this format and will start 21st, the lowest of the four contenders. Hamlin, who lost the 2010 championship in the finale, would also be considered a bit of a longshot based on his performance this season. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is the defending race winner and the only title contender who has been in this position before.
Logano, at 24, is the youngest in the field. A five-time winner this year for Team Penske, he has the chance to give Roger Penske a sweep of American racing series this season. Penske won the IndyCar championship in September.
Then there’s Harvick, who left Childress at the end of last season to drive for good friend Tony Stewart. The career-changing decision in his 14th Cup season has Harvick with his first legitimate shot at a championship.
He’s been loose all week, the alpha dog of this quartet who never skips an opportunity to get under the skin of his rivals. He’s also apparently prepared to be ruthless Sunday if a championship is on the line: When all four drivers were asked if they’d be overly aggressive to win the title, three demurred.
He smiled and said: “Do what you have to do, I guess.”