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Leonard: NASCAR's changes have paid off

POSTED: August 27, 2014 3:22 p.m.
Wade Payne | Associated Press/

Driver Joey Logano peeks out his window as he pulls into victory lane after winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Bristol, Tenn. Logano's three wins have put him near the top of the series standings.

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NASCAR was chasing buzz rather than being concerned with a true champion when it made points system changes in the offseason.

But I have to admit the new format has created not just excitement but a truly aggressive mentality among drivers. As the sport’s leaders predicted, competitors have embodied a “go-for-broke” pursuit of victories.

Even consistency is likely to come out strong in this format, another concern I had before the season. Entering this weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as many as four drivers could end up making the Chase with no wins.

The latest tinkering with the championship system has produced numerous interesting stories in 2014. Here’s a look at six:

1. Logano takes a step up: Joey Logano had won three races in the previous five seasons entering this year. Logano has three victories, tied for a series-high with four other drivers, in the first 24 races of 2014.

Clearly, he has embraced the changes and thrived on the relief of having a Chase spot essentially clinched after winning the third race of the year at Las Vegas.

2. Almirola punches his ticket: Aric Almirola has put Richard Petty Motorsports back into the spotlight of the sport.

His Daytona victory in July clinched his place in the Chase, and Almirola has three other top-10 finishes this season.

He may not be a championship threat, but at least he has a shot.

3. Gordon, Junior lead Hendrick pack: Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson usually doesn’t take a back seat to anybody.

But even tied for the series lead in wins, he can’t match the excitement around points leader Jeff Gordon and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., both Hendrick Motorsports teammates with Johnson. Those two have also won three times and are in the midst of career-changing years.

4. Kez fits this system: The other driver with three wins is 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, who has always been one to do whatever it took to win.

Keselowski seems like a major contender for a second title in three seasons. He and Penske teammate Logano make up a strong 1-2 punch.

5. Winless drivers dangerous: The postseason was made large enough, with 16 drivers, that some of the sport’s best can make it even if they don’t visit Victory Lane before the Chase.

Matt Kenseth, a seven-time winner in 2013, joins Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle as the most likely top-notch drivers to make the Chase with no wins but a serious chance to hang around contention deep into the postseason.

6. Still spots open: With only 12 winners and 16 playoff spots, NASCAR could still have two more drivers become a Cinderella story like Almirola.

A surprise triumph by a rookie sensation like Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon could shake things up. So could a victory by Danica Patrick or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All four are in the top 30 and would therefore be in the Chase with a win.

The possibilities are plenty, thanks in large part to NASCAR’s buzz-seeking gamble.

Sports writer Clark Leonard can be reached at cleonard@gainesvilltimes.com, 770-718-3418 or twitter.com/SportTimesClark.



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