Points still matter in new championship format
MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) -- When NASCAR chairman Brian France revealed the changes to the championship format, he vowed that winning would be the most important element and would ultimately reward "the most worthy, battle-tested" driver with the Sprint Cup title.
"Riding around and being pleased because the (previous) format rewards consistency, those days are going to be pretty much over," France said in January.
Yet here we are in late October and Sunday's race winner at Martinsville Speedway won't win the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr., a four-time race winner this season, was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last week.
His victory at Martinsville means none of the eight remaining drivers in the championship field earned an automatic berth into the championship round. Four drivers will race for the title on Nov. 16 at Homestead, and at least two of the spots will be decided by points.
It means there's a very real possibility that Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, two drivers who have yet to win a race this season, will be eligible to race for the championship at Homestead.
Newman finished third at Martinsville to notch his fifth consecutive top-10 finish in the Chase. He's now second in the Chase standings headed into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway, the second of three races in this third round of the playoffs.
Newman has had a nondescript first season with Richard Childress Racing. Nothing really stands out about it - he's not won any poles and has led just 41 laps all year.
But Newman has been consistent. He has 15 top-10 finishes in 33 races and it was enough to get him into the Chase - as the 16th and final seed - and it's helped him work the system to keep his title hopes intact.
"It has played to our advantage mathematically, no doubt," he said.
Kenseth, winner of seven races last year, hasn't made it to Victory Lane yet this season. But his 20 top-10 finishes had him waffling between second and fourth in the standings during the regular season, and his sixth-place finish has Kenseth ranked fourth in the standings.
Kenseth wasn't in the mood to celebrate his position on Sunday, which he called "one of the lowlights of my career." He spun just past the halfway point and it collected Kevin Harvick, whose car suffered considerable damage.
Harvick, who had started 33rd and last of all the Chase drivers, had worked his way into the top 10 and appeared headed to a strong finish. Instead, the winner of three races this season finished 33rd and is now last in the Chase field. He likely needs to win either this weekend at Texas or at Phoenix to avoid elimination. Should he get knocked out, Harvick said he won't stand for Kenseth winning the title.
"He won't win this championship. If we don't, he won't," said Harvick in an apparent promise of retaliation.
Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team understood the frustration from Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers posted on Twitter after the race that he'd lost respect for Kenseth, "the one person in the field that I never thought would have taken us out."
It was an error on Kenseth's part, hardly intentional, but it may cost one of the strongest teams this year a shot at the title. Harvick, to France's preseason promise, is now racing for wins and one of the two automatic berths into the Chase.
The same goes for Brad Keselowski, who had to win two races ago at Talladega to advance, only to have a mechanical failure at Martinsville drop him back into a deep hole. A victory at Texas or Phoenix is his clearest shot at the finale.
The rest of the field can try to follow a safe strategy of simply collecting solid finishes.
Jeff Gordon, who finished second to Earnhardt on Sunday, said the loss "would have been hard to swallow" if Earnhardt had taken away a spot in the next round. And the runner-up finish put Gordon in good shape: He's the points leader right now and wants to race smart to stay there.
"I've never felt like you couldn't think about being consistent in this format," Gordon said. "You still have to be consistent. Points can still get you through. Your goal is to either win the race or be the highest in points."
Now we get to see just what the reward will be for points racing, and if some of the winningest drivers this year never get a shot at hoisting the Sprint Cup.