By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When William Byron’s engine exploded less than 10 laps away from his seventh win of the season, his chance to race for the Truck Series championship blew up in a puff of white smoke.
It was one of those bad breaks that happen every week at every level in auto racing. But when it happens to the most dominant driver in a series and ruins his title aspirations, it ignites a debate about the fairness — flaws, maybe? — of the elimination-style playoffs NASCAR now uses in all three of its series.
Brad Keselowski was particularly upset about Byron’s misfortune, even though Keselowski fields rival trucks. He described himself as “mad and disappointed” for Byron, and said the elimination format has effectively “traded excellence for entertainment.”
Keselowski learned how harsh the system can be in 2014, its debut year at the Sprint Cup level. He won six races that year, but one bad day at Martinsville led to his elimination from the playoffs after the third round. Keselowski had been worthy of a spot in the finale, but he didn’t earn one of the slots.
Same goes for Jeff Gordon that first year. He won four times in 2014 and should have raced for the title. Like Keselowski, he was bounced out of the third round.
Joey Logano should have made the finale last year, but didn’t. Same goes for Matt Kenseth, who was two laps away from victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway until a caution created a series of events that caused him to crash. He was all but assured of a slot in this weekend’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway one moment, last in the Chase standings the next.
There have been arguments about the Chase since it was first introduced in 2004. Fans felt it was contrived and that the traditional season-long point champion was the truest way to decide a title. The format has been tinkered with several times since, but its most radical adjustments came three years ago when NASCAR implemented eliminations. That format this year was brought to both the Xfinity Series and Truck Series for the first time.
Every sport has upsets and underdogs. Every sport has a Cinderella story every now and then that drums up interest. NASCAR very much needed that element when it introduced the Chase, and chairman Brian France has long trumpeted the desire to have his sport in a position to create “Game 7 moments.”
The entire country talked for days about the seventh game of the World Series and the Chicago Cubs’ dramatic victory. Any leader in their right mind would want that same nail-biting tension for their sport. They want to see crushing defeats, career-defining victories, magical moments.
So no matter what longtime fans believe, France did the absolute right thing in creating the Chase. Yes, people claim they stopped watching NASCAR because of the Chase. They blame Brian France for turning to gimmicks over tradition, claim the Chase has ruined the sport they once loved.
Well, those people are clinging to a past that is never coming back. NASCAR has plenty of problems and NASCAR does many things incorrectly, but the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is not one of them.
The Chase in its first year had five drivers eligible to win the title. It pitted teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson against each other in one of the fiercest championship battles in NASCAR history. The Chase in 2011 produced a magnificent finale in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the championship tied with Stewart getting the trophy on a tiebreaker.
The elimination element has raised the pressure and forced drivers to answer the call when the season is on the line. Kevin Harvick twice won must-win races in 2014 on his way to the title, Joey Logano has done it twice this year alone, including Sunday when his victory put him in the finale.
It is absolutely true that the final four drivers will not always represent the most deserving teams. Byron learned that the hard way in the Truck Series’ inaugural Chase. The most dominant teams don’t always deliver when the pressure is at its highest; although Harvick had performed time and again when his back was against the wall, Stewart-Haas Racing couldn’t come up with the dominating performance it needed Sunday for him to advance.
That’s called sports, and there’s nothing contrived about it.
It’s not always fair, but sports are the greatest reality programming out there. Anything can happen — and did to Kenseth at Phoenix! — and that’s why we watch.